Zoo Denies Rumors That Its Bear Is a Human in Disguise

Hangzhou Zoo
A sun bear at the Hangzhou Zoo, which has clarified that it does not use human stand-ins for its animals.

China’s latest internet sensation, Angela, has been taken for many things: A black bear, a large dog and, most recently, a person in a bear costume, after a video of the sun bear standing upright and interacting with visitors went viral.

In a 15-second clip posted on July 27 to Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, the slender Malayan sun bear can be seen standing on her hind legs and watching a small crowd expectantly from her enclosure, sometimes raising her paws as if waving to visitors.

“Is it a summer intern?” a top comment asked. More chimed in, with one pointing out that the sagging skin around the bear’s hips resembles an ill-fitting bear suit and another saying the “stand-in” must be suffering in the heavy costume.

The video had more than 30 million views as of Tuesday afternoon.

Hangzhou Zoo, in eastern China, issued a statement to clarify that she is not actually a person.

“Some people thought I looked like a human when I stood up. Obviously, you guys know nothing about me,” the zoo posted to its social media accounts on Sunday, using the first-person perspective of the 4-year-old sun bear.

“Angela” explained that all bears are not car-smashing giants and that sun bears are “petite, the smallest bear in the world.” The post also said that Angela is “dating” a male bear named Dalu, but she “wants to take things slow.”

The tree-climbing omnivore measures up to 1.5 meters (59 inches) while standing on its hind legs and is less than half the size of grizzly bears in North America. It is an endangered species native to the rainforests of Southeast Asia. It gets its name from its circular chest patch, which is cream or orange-colored.

The Zhejiang Daily, a newspaper from the province where Hangzhou is located, reported that, in the days after the bear clips went viral, the number of visitors to the zoo increased by 30 percent, with many saying they were there for Angela.

A zoo employee reiterated to a Beijing TV station that Angela was not a human. “In 40-degree Celsius [104° F] summer heat, a human in a leather and fur suit would pass out in a few minutes,” he said, adding that using stand-ins “doesn’t normally happen in state-owned zoos.”

Wong Siew Te, a wildlife biologist who studies the sun bear and founded the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Center in Malaysia, told The Washington Post that the sun bear at Hangzhou Zoo is “very much real.”

“This just shows how little the public know about the species,” he said. “Sun bears stand on their hind feet for a broader view of their surroundings, and those in captivity are used to interacting with humans because they expect food from visitors.”

The zoo, in a follow-up post, urged visitors to refrain from feeding the bears.

Wong said the ruffled skin around Angela’s bottom is a normal feature of its anatomy and can be important for survival in the wild. The thick folds help protect the bears from predators, as the looseness allows it to escape and fight back when bitten.

Sun bears, whose numbers are dwindling in the wild, are hunted for their fur and meat or otherwise mistreated.

“Quite a number of people across Southeast Asia keep sun bear cubs as pets because of their cuteness,” Wong added. “But when the baby bear grows up to become a fierce beast, the owners would either lock it up, throw it away or kill it.”

Some Chinese panda conservation centers have a history of dressing workers in panda suits to make the animals feel more relaxed.

There have also been rare cases of Chinese facilities using stand-ins or fake animals. In 2019, a privately owned safari park in the eastern province of Jiangsu caused a backlash after it allegedly hired an actor to play a gorilla. It later explained that it was an April Fool’s Day prank. Other Chinese zoos have been accused of trying to pass off dogs as wolves and of keeping donkeys in the zebra section.