Else Poulsen remembers being told of her first bear encounter. She was 3 years old, visiting Yellowstone National Park with her parents and brother. They stopped by a secluded riverbank for a picnic lunch when a black bear ambled out of the woods and walked to the water's edge. The bear stood quietly, gazing intently into the water and then slammed her upper body under the surface, emerging victoriously with a large trout. Holding her prize, she slowly walked away.
Poulsen recounts the story in her book, "Smiling Bears: A Zookeeper Explores the Behavior and Emotional Life of Bears," explaining that bears and other wildlife were a common sight on the family's many trips to national parks. The encounters made quite an impression. Poulsen went on to become an author and animal behaviorist, specializing in working with bears. She was known internationally for her work helping captive bears live better lives. Poulsen died April 15 after a battle with cancer. She was 61.
"If ever there was a bear whisperer, Poulsen was one," wrote Laurel Neme in National Geographic. "She raised bears, comforted bears, taught bears, learned from bears, had bears communicate their needs to her, and nursed bears back to health."
One of Poulsen's most well-known encounters was with a 19-year-old female polar bear named Bärle who was rescued from a Caribbean circus and sent to the Detroit Zoo, where Poulsen worked as a zookeeper. Poulsen, who already had 20 years of experience working with polar bears, gradually helped to improve Bärle's physical and mental health.
"'What Bärle wants, Bärle gets'" became our recovery slogan as we created for her a safe living environment where she could try new things, make mistakes, and try again," Poulsen said in an author interview for her book, "Bärle's Story: One Polar Bear's Amazing Recovery from Life as a Circus Act." "It was a lot to negotiate and Bärle would need a friend to help her through the process. I became that friend."
In her career, Poulsen worked at several zoos including the Calgary Zoo and the Detroit Zoo. She worked as an animal management consultant for zoos, sanctuaries, wildlife rehabilitators and other animal welfare groups. In addition to her two books, she wrote for scientific and trade journals. Poulsen was the founder of the Bear Care Group, an international network of professionals who share bear resources and work toward bear conservation efforts.
Stephen Herrero, professor emeritus of environmental science at the University of Calgary, Alberta, addressed Poulsen's methods in the forward to her book, "Smiling Bears."
"Poulsen is an animal psychologist, zookeeper, animal trainer, and huge-hearted person with a passion for helping bears in captivity live better lives," he wrote. "She does this by trying to answer two basic questions for each bear: Who are you? and What can I do for you?"
Poulsen wrote in her book that each bear had a different personality and circumstances that made each one unique.
"I understood early on that, to make a difference in the life of a bear, I had to develop a meaningful relationship — meaningful to the bear. Since no two bears are alike, making friends is different each time."
Photo of Poulsen: BearCareGroup.org