Ursula Böttcher (1927–2010) was a world-renowned animal trainer who became famous for performing with her troupe of polar bears. The troupe included ten bears at its peak, with the diminutive, fiery Böttcher in their midst and in charge. Her fame eventually grew beyond her native East Germany; during the late 20th century, she often traveled with her bears, performing in many circuses around the world.
Perhaps guided by the hand of fate, Ursula Böttcher was named for the animal to whom she would devote her life: her given name “Ursula” derives from ursus, the Latin word for “bear.” Böttcher started her circus career as an usher and cleaning woman and became a star performer in the state circus of the German Democratic Republic (the former East Germany). She was a petite woman, standing five feet, one inch, and the sight of her commanding a troupe of large and lumbering polar bears was visually stunning. Audiences raved and newspapers covered her act. As Böttcher's fame grew, she and her bears were invited to perform throughout the world, a guest of top circuses in France, the United States, and many other countries.
Born Ursula Blötchen in Dresden, Germany in 1927, Böttcher was a precocious child who loved to catch and release mice for fun and saved her pocket money for an annual ticket to the local circus. Her father was a road construction engineer who eventually abandoned his young family, and her mother a homemaker dedicated to raising Böttcher and her two brothers. An ordinary German family, they lived through extraordinary times as the country's far-right National Socialist, or Nazi, party led the nation toward militarization and world conquest. By the late 1930s, German Chancellor Adolf Hitler proclaimed himself Förher, or “leader,” and began a campaign to acquire territory from neighboring Poland. Hitler's ambition to dominate Europe caused other nations to ally with Germany and form the Axis powers; still others, like the Soviet Union, China, and Great Britain, opposed them.
Böttcher, together with her mother and brothers, survived her father's departure and the ravages of World War II, although one of her brothers was killed while fighting on the Russian front. As Nazi Germany's aggressive campaign against its European neighbors faltered, bombing raids became a feature of life, with Dresden, a particularly beautiful city, a major target of Allied bombers. During one such raid, the family fled to a local air-raid shelter, Böttcher bringing her pet canary in her pocket. The bird escaped from the girl and was lost; so to was the way of life Germans had before the war. Hitler's suicide ended Nazi rule, leaving a war-torn Germany to be divided among the victors. Half of its capital city, Berlin, was put under the control of the Soviet Union and, with the northeastern section of the country, became the German Democratic Republic (GDR), or East Germany. Now part of the communist bloc controlled by the USSR, this newly formed country was ruled by an authoritarian government. Böttcher, her brother Siegfried, and her mother persevered, rebuilding their lives as citizens of communist East Germany.
Böttcher completed her basic education and as a teenager worked as a bike messenger, delivering telegrams. As they did prior to the war, she and her mother enjoyed attending the traveling circuses that periodically visited Dresden. Böttcher loved the animal acts and dreamed of a life working with animals. In 1952, now age 24, she applied for a job with Circus Busch, which was then visiting the city. Hiring on as an usher and cleaning lady, she spent her free time watching the animal trainers, particularly Erich Böttcher, an assistant to the elephant trainer. While dating and continuing after they were married in 1955, Erich instructed Ursula in caring for the animals as well as the nuances of animal training.
Meanwhile, the circus world was being reorganized by the East German government, which followed the authoritarian model of controlling major businesses. They took control of most of the traveling circuses and made performers employees of the state. Such was the fate of Circus Barley. When Erich and his six brown bears were reassigned by the State Circus to Circus Sarani, Böttcher moved with him as his assistant.
Not long after their assignment to Circus Sarani, the Böttchers were contacted by Circus Busch and offered a contract, but with a condition: the circus wanted the blonde and attractive Böttcher to take the lead on stage, with Erich assisting. Thrust into the trainer role once again, she did not waste the opportunity. They presented their act as requested, and their success was such that in 1959, Böttcher was offered a larger, mixed group of animals to train: two leopards, three brown bears, and two polar bears.
Other contracts followed, all headlining Ursula Böttcher. A stint with a circus in Bulgaria, another communist bloc country, was followed by a contract with Circus Barley, where Böttcher performed with a group of six lionesses. Her next contract called her to train a group of eight polar bears from Sweden, and this foreshadowed the act which would win her world fame.
In the early 1960s, Böttcher and her husband divorced, and in 1964 she was invited by the director of the State Circus to join Circus Aeros, one of the USSR's premiere venues, where she would train seven polar bears and one brown bear. Among these animals were the bears with whom she would become world famous as the tiny lady commanding a towering pack of snowy carnivores. At Circus Aeros, Böttcher was paired with a new assistant, Manfred Horn, who became her partner in life as well as work. She, Horn, and the bears traveled with Circus Aeros until 1970, performing in Romania, Hungary, and elsewhere in the communist bloc.
Circus Aeros was the cream of the East German circus world. The GDR government wanted the world to see the superiority of the communist system, and its athletes and other star performers were expected to do their best to represent “the people,” the homeland, and the virtues of socialism. Böttcher viewed her stint with Circus Aeros as an opportunity to excel, to work the best venues with the finest talent her country had to offer. She already had a reputation for kindness to her animal charges; she was fast building her star power with her crew of nine-foot carnivores.
“Once you're afraid, it's over,” Böttcher was wont to say. Those who train predators for a living are born, not taught, she believed, for a moment's hesitation could mean death. She loved her bears dearly and never felt a moment's fear with any of her animals. She also never harbored illusions about these wild creatures: she knew that, if she failed in her leadership, they would view her as food. At one point Böttcher was attacked and mauled by one of her female bears, but she broke free and took charge instantly. Sadly, her partner, Manfred, would not be so fortunate; during a 1990 performance, he fell and was ravaged by one of three Kodiak bears then part of their act, dying of his injuries a month later. Despite her grief, Böttcher was back at work the following day, realizing that she did not have the luxury of retreating from her duties.
At its peak, Böttcher's troupe was comprised of 14 polar bears. These behemoth predators had audience appeal due to their relatively benign facial expression and cuddly looking bodies. When they reared up and stood on their hind legs, their oddly human appearance provided a striking contrast to the short and feisty woman who ordered them around.
Böttcher's act took place within a caged ring, with large, heavily constructed props for the bears to climb on. At her call, the bears would troop out and begin a series of impressive tasks: balancing on huge balls, arraying themselves on a jungle gym-like structure to pose with her, and performing various routines and tricks. The biggest bear— and Böttcher's favorite—was named Alaska, and in the act's finale, they performed a “kiss” during which their lips touched. This act was advertised as either the “Death Kiss,” where Böttcher held a piece of meat between her teeth for Alaska to take, or the “Sugar Kiss,” where a sugar cube was the treat. In either case, it was not truly a kiss, Büttcher admitted, and Alaska's cod liver oil-scented breath was revolting.
Because audiences found Büttcher's circus act mesmerizing, it was in great demand. The State Circus thusly allowed her to travel to the West, viewing her as an excellent emissary for the GDR. During the 1970s and 1980s, she took her act around the world, spending two years in France with its premiere Cirque Jean Richard, and six years with the Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey Circus in the United States. Böttcher was a huge hit in America, where such a spectacular act had not been seen for decades. Many other countries, including Japan, Spain, and Italy, also welcomed Böttcher and her bears.
After Manfred's death in 1990, Büttcher continued performing solo with her polar bear act, although the troupe's numbers began to shrink over time. As the animals aged and died, they were not replaced, and by 1998, her final performance included only five bears. On the political front, East Germany was by now dissolved and Germany reunited. By the 1990s she was employed by the Berlin Circus Union, and financial hardships now required that this private company be dissolved and its holdings liquidated. Böttcher and the rest of the circus community saw their world divided up among strangers. The liquidator unceremoniously canceled her bear act after the 1998 show, despite several contract offers, and made plans to send the bears to retirement in Spain. At least, Böttcher thought, the bears would be together.
Such retirement plans were not to be, however. Böttcher was dismayed to learn that the liquidator had decided to sell her five bears to various zoos around the world. After their many years together, the bears had bonded with each other as a family; heartbroken, she could only stand by as they were separated and sent to separate zoos to live out their remaining years in captivity.
Böttcher, now age 71, returned to Dresden, Germany, where she retired on a government pension. She continued to visit the circus each Christmas, where she was given a seat in the front row. Reluctant to speak of her life with her bears, or her career's unhappy ending, she died in Dresden on March 3, 2010, at age 83.
Ellis, Richard, On Thin Ice: The Changing World of the Polar Bear, Random House, 2009.
Der Tagesspiegel, September 27, 1999, Kirsten Decker, “Three Weeks Ago Ursula Böttcher's World Famous Polar Bear Dressage Came to an End.”
Neue Bürcher Beitung, March 14, 2010, Willi Wottreng, “Little Woman, Strong.”
Der Stern, http://www.stern.de/panorama/beruehmte-eisbaeren-dompteurin-ursula-boettcher-ist-tot-3893306.html (March 4, 2010), “Ursula Bottcher.”□