This is just not OK.
Maybe you saw photos around the internet yesterday of a Russian couple who got married by a bear. You might have thought, So cute! or, WTF! or made a “ring bear” pun. But the whole situation is actually the worst thing ever. Here’s why: It’s dangerous, inhumane, and perpetuates a terrible cycle of abuse.
Backstory time: A Russian couple made headlines when pictures of them being “married” by a bear named Stepan surfaced on Twitter. At first glance, the photos were “silly,” showing the bear actually joining the couple’s hands and hugging and kissing them.
Stepan has been in the news before too. His owners, Svetlana and Yuriy Panteleenko, who claimed hunters found him as an abandoned 3-month-old cub and gave him to them, live an unusual life with him. (It should be noted: Experts talked to believe it is much more likely that he was kidnapped from the forest where he lived as a baby.) The Panteleenkos have Stepan participate in lots of photo shoots and even eat with him at the dinner table.
Though it might sound all cute and domesticated, it’s anything but. Reality check: Bears are wild animals and Russia in particular has a history of exploiting them.
Though Stepan’s owners claim he’s “not aggressive” and has “never bitten them,” everyone involved in the “wedding” was actually at risk. “It’s truly disturbing and certainly dangerous for the people involved and absolutely not in the best interest of the bear,” Lisa Wathne, captive exotic animal specialist and spokesperson for the Humane Society of the United States tells us. “Obviously, this bear is a huge animal, he’s a wild animal, despite this couple’s claim. Having a bear live in your home is not how an animal is domesticated.”
What’s more, it doesn’t seem like Stepan lives a very happy life when the cameras aren’t on. A further peek into the background of this couple shows that he is a performance bear regularly booked for photo shoots and television appearances. Video footage from a movie set on his Russian Facebook fan page shows him being smacked by a female trainer. Experts at the Humane Society International also wonder whether or not his teeth have been pulled, a common (extremely painful) mutilation that would make him less threatening.
“The couple has had the bear for 23 years,” Masha Kalinina, a Russian-speaking international trade policy specialist for Humane Society International explains. “He’s an important source of income for [them]. This is how they make their livelihood. … Performing bears are an unfortunate and all too regular occurrence in Russia. Just enter ‘Russian performing bear’ into your search engine to see the overwhelming examples. Bears appear in animal circuses, at the town squares during major festivals, and are sometimes even held in cages near restaurants for entertainment.”
By forcing Stepan into a life of performance, Svetlana and Yuriy Panteleenko are ignoring his natural way of life. “In the wild, he would be roaming over many miles of territory, he would have an active and busy life foraging, defending his territory, looking for a mate,” Wathne says. “None of his natural activities include officiating at weddings or posing with models.”
Even more upsetting is what these images might mean for the future. Photos like these, Wanthe says, “encourage other people to think they can do the same, have bears as pets, and continue this horrible cycle of cruelty.”