Zoo in China denies speculation that its bears are actually humans in disguise

Footage of a Malayan sun bear standing on its hind legs sparked suggestions on social media that it could be a person dressed in a costume.

A zoo in eastern China has denied suggestions that its bears are in fact people dressed in costumes, after a video of one standing like a human went viral on social media.

Footage of the Malayan sun bear standing on its hind legs sparked speculation on the Chinese internet over the weekend, but the zoo in the eastern province of Zhejiang insisted it really is a bear — just a little smaller and different to the ones we’re used to.

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“Some people think I stand like a human, and it seems that you don’t understand me that much,” Hangzhou Zoo wrote on its official social media account on Sunday from the perspective of the bear in the video, named Angela. “Previously, some tourists thought that I was too tiny to be a bear. I have to emphasize again: I am a Malayan sun bear! Not a black bear! Not a dog! A sun bear!”

The video of the bear standing and interacting with tourists circulated widely online after a 15-second clip was posted on Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, on July 27.

Trending topics on the subject attracted millions of views on the platform as people questioned whether the bear was a human in disguise, given its behavior as well as  the visible folds of fur on its body that resemble humans wearing ill-fitting clothing.

But an expert told NBC News that such speculation was unfounded.

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The animal in the video is “a sun bear for sure,” said Wong Siew Te, a wildlife biologist and the founder of the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre in Malaysia. He has been researching the animal for about 25 years.

“Sun bears could be very human-like,” he said. “They stand like humans and walk like humans,” adding that sun bear mothers could carry babies with their hands and walk by their hind legs.

“I never thought it could be human in disguise,” said Gino Liu, a previous visitor to Hangzhou Zoo, speaking via a messaging app. “It is a bear but really looks like a human.”

Hangzhou Zoo declined NBC News’ request for a phone interview, saying that it only welcomes in-person interviews. But in an audio recording posted by Chinese state media, an employee denied the allegation, saying that “human beings cannot last for a few minutes in a fur suit” under the high temperatures (104F) in the area during summer.

Sun bears are the smallest bears, standing at most 1.3 meters (51 inches) tall, while other species can stand at most 2.8 meters (110 inches) tall on their hind legs, according to the zoo.

Malaysian bear in Berlin Zoo

A sun bear in Berlin Zoo in 2020.Jens Kalaene / DPA via Getty Images file

The number of sun bears shrank by over 30% in the past 30 years, according to the World Wildlife Fund. They are also listed as vulnerable animals on the red list created by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

“Sun bears are the least known bears in the world,” Wong said. “I believe the incident could call people’s attention on how sun bears may look like humans and hopefully could [let people know] that they are endangered species because of human activities,” he added, citing large-scale deforestation and hunting.

Animal rights group PETA said that the incident shows how all zoo animals, including this bear, should be moved to sanctuaries and wildlife reserves that “prioritize the well-being of animals”.

“These highly intelligent and social beings deserve to live freely and thrive in their natural environment, not used as mere spectacles for human entertainment,” Jason Baker, PETA Asia Vice President, said in a statement on Tuesday.

Previously, other zoos in China had been criticized for dyeing their dogs to look like wolves.

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