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Hot cause on Capitol Hill: setting free the polar bears

Sixteen U.S. senators and 55 members of Congress are demanding speedy federal action to rescue seven overheated polar bears from a circus in tropical Puerto Rico.

The polar bears climb stairs, slip down ramps and do other tricks for the Suarez Brothers Circus, a Mexican show that travels the Caribbean islands and Latin America.

Even animal rights activists are surprised at the attention that Boris, Wilhelm, Marsha and four other polar bears are getting on Capitol Hill.

"Maybe they are all sick and tired of terrorism (issues)," said Naomi Rose, a marine mammal scientist with the Humane Society of the United States.

In a Nov. 7 letter demanding federal action on this "serious matter," 16 senators cite a report that the bears sometimes endure temperatures as high as 110 degrees. They ask for immediate steps that may include "seizing the polar bears for safe and proper keeping."

The plight of the "Suarez Seven" is also attracting attention in the House, where 55 members of Congress signed a letter Thursday calling for action "to confiscate these polar bears and send them" to a qualified zoo.

The circus has no listed telephone number in Puerto Rico, and its owners could not be reached immediately for comment. The circus is performing in Vega Baja, Puerto Rico. A Washington attorney for the circus, Richard Frank, also did not immediately return a telephone call.

In August, the Puerto Rican Department of Natural Resources filed animal cruelty charges against the circus for keeping the polar bears in filthy cages without relief from extreme heat. A trial is scheduled for Jan. 22.

If the circus owners are found guilty, the "bears should be taken from the circus immediately," Anibal Acevedo-Vila, a nonvoting member of Congress from Puerto Rico, said in a recent letter.

"These poor things are suffering horribly," said Humane Society spokesman Howard White. "They've lost something like 30 or 40 percent of their body mass. They have mange."

Polar bears, found in Alaska and elsewhere in the Arctic, are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. The largest predators of the Arctic, polar bears easily overheat in temperatures above freezing unless given cool water for regular immersion.

The Humane Society is distributing a video showing lumbering polar bears slowly doing stunts in the Suarez Brothers Circus.

"They look terrible," said Rose, the scientist. "I know the biology of these animals. They look thin. They were dirty. They were very lethargic. They were panting, which is a dog thing to do."

Three of the bears appear to have been captured in Manitoba, Canada, the Humane Society said.

The senators who signed the letter include Richard Durbin, D-Ill.; John Kerry, D-Mass.; Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.; Robert Torricelli, D-N.J.; Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.; Carl Levin, D-Mich.; Max Cleland, D-Ga.; Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.; Patty Murray, D-Wash.; and Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. Sens. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine; George Voinovich, R-Ohio; Susan Collins, R-Maine; Robert C. Smith, R-N.H.; Mike DeWine, R-Ohio; and independent Sen. James Jeffords of Vermont also signed.

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