Gus the Bi-Polar Bear and the Pain of Existence
ME: Gus, how are you feeling, big guy?
[GUS rolls onto his gigantic table of a back and shimmies in the sun]
[GUS turns and shows me his butt]
ME: Gus. Please. You’re sending me mixed signals.
Last time Gus, (AKA, the “very lonely polar bear”) got upset, he started swimming the backstroke and wouldn’t stop. That was 1994, and the Central Park Zoo responded to his troubling behavior with a $25,000 therapy plan.
Now, everyone is watching Gus for similar signs of depression; Gus is bereaved—Ida, his roommate of 24 years, was euthanized over a month ago. But despite Gus’s solitude, one of the large informational signs outside his enclosure still reads, “Getting to know our bears.”
When I went to see Gus, that sign was creating some confusion; all the kids were pressing their faces against the glass, wanting to know where Ida was.
“Where’s the other polar bear, though,” they whined, looking disappointedly at Gus, who was, admittedly, a pretty boring spectacle that day—splayed out on his stomach, his giant head cradled in his paws. He was even covering his eyes.
“Oooh, look at how dangerous he is,” a mother crooned down at her stroller, trying to distract an antsy toddler from the lack of activity. “He smelled us, he’s gonna eat us for dinner!”
The toddler wasn’t buying it. “But where’s the other…”
“They had to kill the other polar bear,” I said—realizing quickly (albeit, too late) that this was the wrong thing to say to crowd of strangers, most of whom were under the age of seven. The mothers around me tightened their grips on their strollers and child-leashes, flashing dirty looks. One covered her son’s ears. This is what she is afraid of when she sees crazy people on the train, I thought. That they’ll say stuff like this to her kids.
“I didn’t put that right,” I blurted. “I meant euthanasia.” I turned to one mother, who looked very kind, like she might understand. “You know how it is”—but they were all already starting to disperse.
“Well that was weird,” I said to Gus, thumping on the glass, which was too thick to transfer sound. I cupped my hands around my mouth and shouted, “Can you believe all the publicity about your sadness?”
I’d come to Central Park with a purpose. I wanted to understand what was going on with the animal world’s most famous depressive, but no one would talk to me about Gus, his $25,000 therapy plan, or his current condition (The Bronx Zoo, Central Park Zoo, Queens Zoo, Prospect Park Zoo, New York Aquarium, and various animal specialists all agreed: “No comment.”)
So I planned to get most of the story from Gus, himself. Straight from the source. I was skeptical about the idea of polar bear depression, but looking at Gus with his head in his paws made me feel maternal and frantic, desperate to ease his pain. I had the same feeling when I was about to leave for college and my eight-year-old brother started sobbing. I started doing this crazy dance, trying to get him to laugh.
Maybe that’s why zoos have these therapy plans to begin with, I thought—not for the animals but to soothe the humans, assure us that something is being done. Maybe we can’t handle the guilt and love and powerlessness we feel when caged animals won’t look back at us.
Though he didn’t know the specifics of the case, Dr. Nicholas Dodman, Tufts University’s program director of animal behavior, was able to supplement my admittedly one-sided conversations with Gus. For instance, Dodman told me that, given the way these types of things are usually handled, Gus has probably been put on Prozac.
“Mourning is really depression,” said Dodman, who has helped determine Prozac dosages for other depressed zoo animals. He explained that sad animals don’t make for good tourist attractions; they pace endlessly or hide inside their artificial dens, and nobody has any fun.
“So how can you tell if an animal is sad?” I asked. I mean, don’t they just eat you if you look at them for too long in the wild? How do we really even know how they’re supposed to act in captivity?—Is there a DSM for this kind of thing?
“They seem to lack luster, they become withdrawn,” Dodman said. “They just generally mope around.”
Dodman also suggested that Gus’s depression could have been triggered not only by the loss of Ida, but by a lack of closure: Ida was whisked away before Gus could come to terms with her death. “They must be allowed to kind of view the body,” he said, using the example of a stillborn foal. “[The mare] needs some time to explore and seemingly convince herself that there’s no life in the dead foal.…Then they will eventually settle down and accept the inevitable. But if you whisk the body away—if it dies and is immediately removed without giving her a chance to investigate it—she’ll become really quite distraught.
This made sense, in a way—but hauling Ida’s giant, lifeless body back into the Polar Bear den for Gus to sniff at also seemed like the kind of thing the Central Park Zoo might get criticized for if anyone find out.
“So can captive animals ever really be happy?”
“It depends on the state of your captivity.” Dodman sighed. “Even so it’s a bit like Hotel California. It’s a good place to be but you can’t get out. It’s like an open prison.”
ME: Gus I want to cuddle with you.
[GUS does that silent moan]
ME: I know.
I keep thinking about the way Gus kept lifting lifted big, heavy head last time I saw him—how he’d open his mouth with fluttering lips and wince, like he was about to yell for Ida but caught himself before the call came. Last year, when I was living alone in an apartment on the side of a rural highway and the nearest airport was 2.5 hours away, the thought of anyone I’d ever loved could induce that same choked, non-noise.
Then again, as Sharon Dewar of the Lincoln Park Zoo pointed out to me, most of what we infer as animal emotion is mostly just our own, human feelings, projected onto animal behavior. It’s possible that Gus was simply catching a whiff of me and visualizing dinner—because he’s a big, dangerous animal, like all those moms kept insinuating to their kids—or maybe the Prozac was still kicking in. Given the 80-degree weather that day, it was hard to tell if Gus was actually depressed or simply overheated.
Still, I tended to agree with the man and woman who wandered up to me during Gus and my conversation. “I don’t know the first thing about polar bears, but he looks sad,” said the man, scratching under his Yarmulke. “God made him that fur thing to keep him warm in the like, Arctic circle. He should be in Norway, I think.”
His wife sighed. “Maybe he speaks Hebrew,” she offered, and the two of them started murmuring comforts I couldn’t understand.
Photo by James A. Powers
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