Chinese zoo denies bear is person in suit
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Chinese zoo denies bear is person in suit

Two sun bears interact in their enclosure at Hangzhou Zoo in Hangzhou in China's eastern Zhejiang province on Aug 1, 2023. (Photo: AFP)
Two sun bears interact in their enclosure at Hangzhou Zoo in Hangzhou in China's eastern Zhejiang province on Aug 1, 2023. (Photo: AFP)

ZHEJIANG: Sun, moon, grizzly, black, spectacled, sloth: Bears all over the world can stand, shuffle, totter and walk on two legs, although they usually prefer four.

They do not — strictly speaking — talk.

But a zoo in Hangzhou, China, decided that the best way to clear up a conspiracy theory about one of its bears was to release a statement in the bear’s voice.

The confusion appeared to begin in late July, when a video surfaced on the Chinese social media site Weibo of a sun bear named Angela standing on a rock in its zoo enclosure, with ramrod posture on its hind legs.

Some Weibo users began to cast doubt on the ursine truth of the bear. Some accused the zoo of using a dog impostor — sun bears can grow to the proportions of a large dog, about 4 1/2 feet long and up to 145 pounds.

The claim has some precedent: In 2013, a zoo in Henan province was accused of replacing its lion with a Tibetan mastiff.

Other Weibo users had a more exotic explanation: They said the zoo had stuck a human in a bear suit, with the posture, loose skin and fur giving it away.

One commenter joked that being the bear was probably someone’s summer job, while another said that the prominent folds on the bear’s fur looked too much like those of a costume. (Experts say sun bears have loose skin that helps them wriggle away from predators.)

Those users, joking or not, may have also had cause for suspicion. At a panda reserve in Sichuan province, keepers sometimes wear panda costumes to limit the animals’ stress and their problems of human attachment.

However the costumes may appear to the pandas, the baggy masks and black-and-white, zip-up jumpsuits have repeatedly disturbed humans over the years. Some zoos also use costumed employees to run animal escape drills.

Not all Weibo users doubted the bear’s authenticity: A number of commenters pinned the blame on tourists, who they said had probably overfed the bear, leading Angela to develop a habit of standing upright to beg for more. Over the weekend, as the debate intensified, it became a trending topic on Weibo. (Possibly adding to the fervour this week were viral videos of a Japanese man dressed in a realistic dog costume under the YouTube handle @I_want_to_be_an_animal.)

Employees at the Hangzhou zoo, accused of harbouring a human in sun bear disguise, felt compelled to respond. On Saturday, an unnamed worker defended the bear and the zoo to a Chinese news outlet in an interview that circulated on social media.

“Of course it’s a real animal. It’s definitely not a person in disguise,” he said. “Our place is a state-run facility; such situations won’t happen here.”

The worker offered an unusual follow-up defence, arguing that bear suits are simply too hot to wear in the summer, when temperatures reach 40 degrees Celsius (104°Fahrenheit). “If you were to wear a suit, you definitely couldn’t bear it for more than a few minutes,” he said. “You’d have to lie down.”

Was he speaking from personal experience? He did not say. His explanation did not satisfy all the doubters, so the zoo followed up with a statement Sunday written in the voice of “Angela the Malayan sun bear.”

The statement insisted that the bear was truly a bear, as opposed to a person pretending to be a bear — or a person pretending to be a bear insisting they were not a person pretending to be a bear.

“Yesterday after work, I received a call from the park manager asking me if I was slacking off and had a biped replace me,” the statement said, “Much to my surprise, I’m just sitting in the mountains and I go viral on the internet. Some people think I look too human when I stand up. It seems you really don’t understand me. Previously, some visitors even thought I was too petite to be a bear! I want to emphasize again: I am a Malayan sun bear! Not a black bear! Not a dog! A Malayan sun bear!”

The statement went on to explain that not all bears are “massive and dangerous,” even if they are a “family of fierce beasts.”

Charles Robbins, director of research at the Washington State University Bear Center, agreed with the theory that the bear was begging for food.

“Looks like a sun bear to me,” Robbins said Tuesday. “Presumably, the bear has been rewarded with food by the crowd for standing, so it learned very quickly to do just that.”

It is not unusual for bears to rely on their hind legs, he added. “I have a grizzly bear that will stand and walk two-legged.”

The Hangzhou Zoo may not be in a hurry to put the bear controversy to bed. In the days following the videos, visits soared. A director of the zoo told Chao News, a Zhejiang-based newspaper, that over 20,000 tourists visited the zoo Saturday, roughly 30% more than the daily average.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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