Not even passionate pleas from US performer Cher to Argentina’s president could produce what is arguably a much-needed life-change for Arturo, who campaigners have called the world’s saddest polar bear.
He’d be just another mammal in captivity were it not for a string of online denouncements seeking to transfer Arturo to a climate more in line with his natural Arctic habitat. Then Cher sent a few tweets to President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, and before long, Arturo became known on social media as the world’s saddest zoo animal.
“Your hands will be stained with his blood when he dies,” Cher tweeted to “#MrsCristinaFernandezDeKirchner” in late May, part of a flurry of Twitter posts aimed at helping Arturo. Fernández never replied.
Arturo is 29 years old and has spent the last 21 years of his life at the municipal zoo in Mendoza, Argentina, where temperatures in the summer months often exceed 100 degrees. After his pen partner died in 2012, and another polar bear died in Buenos Aires later that year, Arturo is now the only polar bear alive in Argentina — which just makes his whole situation that much sadder.
But on Wednesday, the director of the Mendoza zoo confirmed to VICE News that Arturo will not be moving to cooler pastures in Canada — as activists had hoped — or anywhere else.
Despite the pressure of more than 675,000 signatures on a Change.org petition, 25,000 of which were gathered in only the past three days, Mendoza zoo director Gustavo Pronotto told VICE News Arturo would be staying in his pen in Mendoza for the foreseeable future.
No authority beyond a medical team at the zoo made the determination, he said.
“Principally, for three reasons,” Pronotto explained. “The first is that the bear is of a very advanced age, the second is that he has an excellent relationship with his caretakers, and the third is that he is a fifth-generation bear born in captivity. It would be difficult for the animal to adapt to the cold, as he’s already accustomed to the climate in Mendoza.”
The controversy over Arturo’s fate began in 2013, when videos began surfacing of the lonely polar bear in grim conditions at the Mendoza zoo. Bill McDonald, of the Winnipeg Humane Society, said in an interview with CBC News that the animal “methodically does the same thing over and over, and over and over, and it’s really an indication that he is going slowly insane.”
In May 2012, Arturo’s longtime companion, a polar bear named Pelusa — Spanish for hairball — died of cancer at the Mendoza zoo. Another polar bear named Winner died later in Buenos Aires. Winner was unable to tolerate the high temperatures and fireworks from Christmas celebrations, which fall during the Southern Hemisphere’s summer months, zookeepers said at the time.
Arturo might be suffering from “zoochosis,” environmentalists have warned.
“Zoochosis is repetitive behavior that is developed by animals in captivity,” Soledad Sede, of Greenpeace Argentina, told VICE News. “In Arturo’s case, this manifests as him walking back and forth, like he wants to go somewhere and can’t.”
“The zoos are not zoos, rather collections of live and suffering animals,” Claudio Bertonatti, a member of the Félix de Azara Natural History Foundation, told VICE News. “The problem is that a zoo implies more than maintaining and exhibiting animals. There has to be a purpose for their captivity.”
“Instead of Disneyland with people in costume, you have animals,” Bertonatti concluded.
Arturo’s luck appears to be unchanging, but his zookeeper doesn’t see what the whole hubbub is about.
“The bear is better off than a lot of Mendoza residents,” Pronotto said. “He has three air conditioners, a pool with 200,000 liters of filtered water, and his water is changed each week… We ask that you let us work and leave us in peace, both the bear and me.”
Follow Gaston Cavanagh on Twitter: @GastonCavanagh