HANGZHOU, China — A zoo in eastern China has denied suggestions that some of its bears were people dressed in costume after videos of a Malayan sun bear standing on its hind legs – and looking uncannily human – went viral, fueling rumors and conspiracy theories on Chinese social media.
In a statement written from the perspective of a sun bear named “Angela,” officials from Hangzhou zoo said people “didn’t understand” the species.
“I’m Angela the sun bear – I got a call after work yesterday from the head of the zoo asking if I was being lazy and skipped work today and found a human to take my place,” the statement read.
“Let me reiterate again to everyone that I am a sun bear – not a black bear, not a dog – a sun bear!”
In videos shared on the popular Chinese microblogging site Weibo, a sun bear was seen standing upright on a rock and looking out of its enclosure.
Many Weibo users noted the animal’s upright posture, as well as folds of loose fur on its behind – making the bear look somewhat odd and fueling speculation that a human imposter might be masquerading in its place.
It might sound like an implausible gambit. But zoos in China have courted public ridicule in the past for trying to pass off pets like dogs as wild animals.
In 2013, a city zoo in the central Henan province angered visitors by trying to pass off a Tibetan Mastiff dog as a lion. Visitors who had approached the enclosure expressed shock when they heard the “lion” bark.
Visitors at another Chinese zoo, in Sichuan province, were shocked to discover a golden retriever sitting in a cage labeled as an African lion enclosure.
‘Forgotten’ bears under threat
Native to the tropical forests of Southeast Asia, sun bears are the world’s smallest bear species. Adult bears stand at heights of up to 70 centimeters tall (28 inches) and weigh between 25 to 65 kilograms (55 to 143 pounds), experts say.
They do not hibernate and are also characterized by amber colored crescent shaped fur patches on their chests and long tongues which help them extract honey from bee hives – earning them the name “beruang madu” (honey bear) in Malaysia and Indonesia.
Sun bears are listed as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and are a protected species in native countries like Malaysia.
Their numbers in the wild are at threat by poachers and deforestation, declining by 35% over the past three decades, according to conservation groups like the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Center (BSBCC) in Sabah, Malaysia.
The center cares for 43 rescued bears, each with their own mannerisms and unique personality.
“Not enough people know about sun bears – they are a very forgotten species,” BSBCC founder and wildlife biologist Wong Siew Te told CNN.
“Most bear species can stand on their hind legs but sun bears stand up high to reach higher ground to investigate their surroundings so there is a purpose to why they do that. Female sun bears even hold their cubs with both hands and walk on their feet, very human like, so I guess that’s why people get mistaken.”
Wong said that the bear’s loose, saggy skin also serves an important function in the wild, by acting as armor from predators, protecting them from deeper bites and injuries.
“Sun bears are usually fat and round. When conditions are bad and food is scarce, their skin becomes loose,” Wong said.
“Forests are vanishing and mothers are often killed by hunters who steal their cubs – this is a huge problem across Southeast Asia. Sun bears are also subject to the cruel bear bile trade,” Wong added.
“There needs to be more awareness and education about sun bears – they are a protected and special species and are in serious trouble.”
CNN contributed to this report.