There is an old maxim in show business that working with children and animals is deadly for an actor’s career, as both usually hog the spotlight and take all the audience’s attention away from the thespian.
But the latest four-legged star of the circus and the big screen in Russia is a massive Eurasian brown bear called Stepan. Stepan is currently starring in a series of online photographs with a Russian model on her Instagram account, she dressed in traditional Russian garb, him posing in a remarkably natural and relaxed manner.
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Clearly, posing for photographs is nothing new to Stepan, and his photo has graced the pages of the U.K.’s Daily Mail newspaper and the New York Post, among others. The photographer on this latest shoot, Mila Zhdanova, told the press she has seldom worked with such an easy going, good-natured model as Stepan, an assessment of his temperament that his owners readily attest to.
Svetlana and Yuri Panteleenko adopted the bear from a zoo when he was only three months old. He had been abandoned by his mother, so the two animal lovers stepped in and raised him as their surrogate child, in a way.
Consequently, the ursine monster (in size only) has become a gentle member of the family who on occasion joins them for supper at the dinner table and relaxes in front of the television with them in the evening.
Stepan may have the temperament of Winnie the Pooh but he has the appetite of any other 1,300 pound bear, and consumes about 25 kilos of fish and veggies each day.
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His “parents” claim he has never tasted red meat, and that anyone in Stepan’s presence is in no danger whatsoever because he was domesticated at such a young age, and has not been in the company of other bears since he was a wee cub.
A model on a shoot with Stepan in Russia was at first was somewhat trepidatious about his size. But Zhdanova, the photographer on that shoot as well as the “fairy tale” one also done in Russia, says that within minutes the model, and her young daughter, were both completely at ease in the bear’s company. She confirmed that models from all over the world have been anxious to work with Stepan, and have flown to Russia expressly to do so.
But the reality is that Stepan is a wild animal, no matter how tame and docile he behaves with his “parents” and complete strangers on photo shoots, film sets and in other projects he’s hired to perform in.
And that means he is, ultimately, unpredictable.
Stories abound of wild animals that have been raised by humans and seem perfectly tame and domesticated for years. (Stepan is 23 years old.) And then, with no warning they turn back into the creature they were born to be – a predator that is triggered and kills for reasons that seem incomprehensible to their owners.
A classic example are the Las Vegas magicians and animal trainers Siegfried & Roy, as they were billed. They kept the tigers from their act as pets in their home for years, until one day, for seemingly no reason at all, a tiger turned on Roy, mauled him and nearly killed him during an evening’s performance. The attack almost killed Roy Horn, but he insisted that the feline not be put down. (Horn died in May of complications from the coronavirus.)
That’s just one example of nature asserting itself in an animal’s behaviour. Hopefully such a terrible outcome never happens with Stepan and his owners, but it is impossible to know for sure – the bear is a huge predator, after all.
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For now, however, he is a cuddly, if massive, pet and actor that seems to love his life, love his handlers, and love the world and people around him. For everyone’s sake, let’s hope Stepan continues to be one of Russia’s cuddliest, real-life teddy bears.