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Rescued Bear Tales of Two of Hollywood’s Most Acclaimed Sibling Actors — Eric & Julia Roberts

National Geographic science contributor Dr. Jordan Schaul shares some famous bear tales regarding the international travel of two of Hollywood’s most acclaimed sibling actors. Occasionally, I interview people in the entertainment industry (link).  Among them are famed Hollywood stars making quite a positive impact on animal welfare and wildlife conservation. This includes addressing concerns that...

National Geographic science contributor Dr. Jordan Schaul shares some famous bear tales regarding the international travel of two of Hollywood’s most acclaimed sibling actors.

Eric Roberts

Occasionally, I interview people in the entertainment industry (link).  Among them are famed Hollywood stars making quite a positive impact on animal welfare and wildlife conservation.

This includes addressing concerns that face companion pets, traditional livestock, alternative livestock, feral populations and/or indigenous wildlife species or populations.

Early this year, I interviewed Golden Globe and Academy Award -nominated actor Eric Roberts and his wife, Eliza Roberts, with celebrity animal advocates, the Barbi Twins for Nat Geo.

I learned that, just over a decade ago, the lifelong animal enthusiasts reached out to help a very distressed bear in a dire situation overseas.

During the Roberts’ 2003 visit to Sochi, on the shores of the Black Sea, the couple encountered Stepan—a captive Russian brown bear featured as a roadside attraction.  Stepan spent most of his life in a very small cage, which was obviously inadequate for a member of the largest carnivore species on Earth.

“Stepan was maintained for most of his life in a very small cage, which was obviously inadequate for the largest carnivore species on Earth.”

Concerned for the bear’s welfare, the Roberts’ along with actress Kim Basinger, arranged to have Stepan relocated to the Rostov Zoo—a large zoological facility 600 miles south of Moscow.

The Zoo’s curatorial staff was eager to find a companion to help socialize the bear and provide a source of social enrichment. Stepan, incidentally, was renamed “Eric” as a tribute and gesture of appreciation for Mr. Roberts’ contribution to the animal’s much improved situation.

The Rostov Zoo is one of the largest zoos in Russia with a captive population of more than 5000 animals, representing more than 400 species.  Polar bears and Kamchatka brown bears are among some of the Rostrov Zoo’s recent, and presumably current, ursine residents. I did not learn the fate of Stepan (“Eric”), but more than likely the bear was an illegally poached cub from the Kamchatka Peninisula.

Russian Brown Bears (Nat Geo)

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, bears of Kamchatka, which rival Alaska’s Kodiak Island brown bears for largest size among ursids (bears), have been vanishing.

The unfortunate demise of Russia’s most impressive brown bear subspecies was reported by Wildlife Conservation Society bear biologist Gleb Raygorodetsky for National Geographic Magazine’s February 2006 issue.

The article titled “Russia’s Giant Bears” featured here on the NGS website describes the plight of bears of the Kamchatka Peninsula and their disappearance due in part to continued poaching and trophy hunting in the Russian Far East.

ft_hdr.3Described as “Giants under Siege” —the article states that “After the Soviet Union collapsed, so did the brown bear population of the Kamchatka Peninsula.”

NGS Video: Bears in Danger

NGS Video: Russia’s Vanishing Bears

Unfortunately, with few exceptions bears are disappearing everywhere.

Actor Eric Roberts’s sister, actress Julia Roberts, seemed to also have quite the affinity for bears, as demonstrated by her family’s visit to a sloth bear rescue facility while on a 2009 trip to India. Evidently, she and her family learned quite a bit concerning the implications of poaching and the plight of wild bears in this part of South Asia.

Julia Roberts

While in Bangalore, India, Julia, her husband, cameraman Danny Moder and their children received a sneak peak at some bears at Wildlife SOS’s Bannerghatta Bear Rescue Centre.  The couple was specifically introduced to a seven year-old male sloth bear.

“The bear had just been rescued from a life where he was forced to dance on the streets,” said Wildlife SOS CEO Kartick Satyanarayan.  “Our staff spent the day with Julia and Danny and their three children. We invited her to name the bear and she chose to name him Odum—a family name.”

Odum is now nearly 10 or 11 years old and although he suffered from malnourishment as a cub and has stunted growth and a bit of an awkward gait, as a consequence, he is otherwise a normal sloth bear.

According to my colleague Dr. Arun, the Veterinary Director for Wildlife SOS, “Odum receives vitamin supplements to his staple diet and is otherwise healthy and enjoying himself playing with three other rescued sloth bears in their expansive enclosure.”

According to the April 2009 issue of OPEN magazine:

“Roberts explained to her three kids how ‘bad men had taken baby bear away from mother bear to perform tricks’. The kids, of course, were delighted when Odum snuck his hand out of his shelter and played with all of them. “Odum is the newest member of our family, and we will definitely visit him the next time we are visiting India,” said the email.”

Wildlife SOS manages nine rescue facilities iunder the auspices of the India state Forest Departments for native fauna. Animals at their rescue centers include bears, elephants, big cats, as well as miscellaneous species of birds and mammals native to India and the subcontinent.

Some of the animals that Wildlife SOS services are in need of lifelong care, while others require only temporary care before they are released back into the wild. Among permanent residents are hundreds a former dancing street bears like Odum. These sloth bears exploited for money as a part of some local practices have faced overt neglect and abuse for almost their entire lives.

Sloth bear cub forced to dance (Wildlife SOS)

Many of these poached bears were rendered blind or otherwise disabled from their first experiences in captivity.

Although many of the rescued bears may be compromised in some psychological or physical regard, many would be good candidates for release into the wild. That is if they were not already habituated to people.

Many of the captive sloth bears are fairly gentle, but wild sloth bears are notorious for being highly protective of their dens and cubs.

The likelihood of confronting tigers in areas where both species attempt to coexist requires that sloth bears be capable of putting up a good fight.



Ted Talk by Wildlife SOS CEO
& Co-Founder Kartick Satyanarayan

Behavioral biologists suspect that the disposition of wild sloth bears can be attributed to their coexistence with several other carnivore species besides tigers. These primarily include hyenas and leopards. In some places they overlap in range with Asiatic black bears.

Just last week, Wildlife SOS in collaboration with the the Uttar Pradesh Forest Department, released a robust male sloth bear back into the wild, as I reported in this article.

Sloth Bear (Photo by J. Schaul)

As the largest animal welfare and conservation organization in India and all of South Asia, Wildlife SOS holds the largest number of sloth bears in captivity, and actually the largest number of bears of any species at their Agra Bear Rescue Facility north of their Bangalore Bear Rescue Center.

To learn more about Wildlife SOS’s rescue programs for former dancing sloth bears cared for at their Agra Bear Rescue Facility (Agra, India) and Bannerghatta Bear Rescue Centre (Bangalore, India), please read this earlier National Geographic News post—“Wildlife SOS-India Nearly Extinguishes a 400 Year-Old Practice of Dancing Bears.

Or please, visit the following Wildlife SOS websites:
current website and (Beta)



Jordan Schaul

Dr. Jordan Schaul is a Los Angeles-based scientist and writer. He is an associate conservation biologist with various NGO’s and an adjunct faculty member at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

Here is Jordan’s Full Bio.

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Meet the Author

Author Photo Jordan Carlton Schaul
With training in wildlife ecology, conservation medicine and comparative psychology, Dr. Schaul's contributions to Nat Geo Voices have covered a range of environmental and social topics. He draws particular attention to the plight of imperiled species highlighting issues at the juncture or nexus of sorta situ wildlife conservation and applied animal welfare. Sorta situ conservation practices are comprised of scientific management and stewardship of animal populations ex situ (in captivity / 'in human care') and in situ (free-ranging / 'in nature'). He also has a background in behavior management and training of companion animals and captive wildlife, as well as conservation marketing and digital publicity. Jordan has shared interviews with colleagues and public figures, as well as editorial news content. In addition, he has posted narratives describing his own work, which include the following examples: • Restoration of wood bison to the Interior of Alaska while (While Animal Curator at Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center and courtesy professor at the University of Alaska) • Rehabilitation of orphaned sloth bears exploited for tourists in South Asia (While executive consultant 'in-residence' at the Agra Bear Rescue Center managed by Wildlife SOS) • Censusing small wild cat (e.g. ocelot and margay) populations in the montane cloud forests of Costa Rica for popular publications with 'The Cat Whisperer' Mieshelle Nagelschneider • Evaluating the impact of ecotourism on marine mammal population stability and welfare off the coast of Mexico's Sea of Cortez (With Boston University's marine science program) Jordan was a director on boards of non-profit wildlife conservation organizations serving nations in Africa, North and South America and Southeast Asia. He is also a consultant to a human-wildlife conflict mitigation organization in the Pacific Northwest. Following animal curatorships in Alaska and California, he served as a charter board member of a zoo advocacy and outreach organization and later as its executive director. Jordan was a member of the Communication and Education Commission of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (CEC-IUCN) and the Bear Specialist Group of the IUCN Species Survival Commission (BSG-SSC-IUCN). He has served on the advisory council of the National Wildlife Humane Society and in service to the Bear Taxon Advisory Group of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA Bear TAG). In addition he was an ex officio member of council of the International Association for Bear Research and Management. Contact Email: