Pets with their own social media following are nothing new.

However as an eight-foot, domesticated Russian bear, Stepan Panteleenko stands out from the usual crowd of pug dogs and miniature pigs.

Often pictured with aspiring social media stars in the woods surrounding his native Moscow, Stepan is something of a heartthrob.

The furry 300kg hunk appears in regular photo shoots accompanied by lingerie models and has over a dozen film credits to his name.

Advertisement

In Russia, Stepan has become a sex symbol and something of a cult figure. "If Stepan was a man, he would be the best husband and family man," reads one Instagram caption from an enamoured fan.

Naturally pictures taken with the national icon come at a premium. Photographers are charged around 10,000 roubles (NZ$250) for a shoot with the Instagram-famous bear.

Stepan's managers and owners, Svetlana and Yuri Panteleenko have turned the animal's picture-friendly appeal into a business.

They lease out the bear to film and photography shoots, where Stepan poses for pictures. These range from candid fairy tale images to more risqué and sensual fare.

Svetlana and Yuri claim they rescued the bear when he was just a young cub. (Depending on which retelling, the bear was rescued from a huntsmen or a 'small zoo'.) Since that episode the unorthodox family have been living in a cabin in the woods. But unlike Goldilocks the arrangement is far from being 'just right': the life of Stepan is no folk tale but one of animal exploitation.

Russia has a long history of exploiting bears. From circus performers to the Bolshoi ballet, Animal rights activists claim that Stepan is the new face of the baited bear for the Instagram generation.

Goldilocks: Yuri and Svetlana Panteleenko with their pet bear Stepan, outside Moscow. Photo / Getty Images
Goldilocks: Yuri and Svetlana Panteleenko with their pet bear Stepan, outside Moscow. Photo / Getty Images

He is a performing animal, who has a regular schedule of film shoots and even live appearances.

Lisa Wathne of the US Humane Society has said the arrangement is "absolutely not in the best interest of the bear."

Advertisement

Speaking to Cosmopolitan magazine the exotic animal expert said Stepan's treatment was cruel and against his nature.

"In the wild, he would be roaming over many miles of territory, he would have an active and busy life foraging," said Wathne. There's nothing about posing with swimwear models and social media influencers that is natural to a fully-grown Siberian brown bear.

Yet it's this unusual composition of nymph-like models and a hulking great beast that makes Stepan such a draw to photographers.

Unnatural? Bears ride buffalos at the Belarusian State Circus. Photo / TASS, Getty Images
Unnatural? Bears ride buffalos at the Belarusian State Circus. Photo / TASS, Getty Images

As the National Geographic recently reported in their latest report on the state on Animal Tourism, exploiting bears for entertainment is a "long-standing Russian tradition".

Russia is also one of the few countries in the world where animals such as live bears - and even travelling dolphins - are still legal forms of entertainment.

The Bolshoi State St. Petersburg Circus prides itself on acts featuring bears, such as juggling bears.

View this post on Instagram

Ну вообщеее! Завтра понедельник! 😝😖 Я прям нервничаю! Кто также как и я не хочет завтра на работу?! ❌🙅🏻Ставьте лайк ❤️ и любой смайл в комменте 😤😬🤐, максимально выражающий всё своё отношение к данному дню недели! 🙄😝🤢 --------- Поэтому чтобы немного успокоиться, выложу мишку Степана 😅, он меня немного умиротворяет 😆 и привносит гармонию в мои фотографические мысли! 😄 Осенние и зимние съемки с ним особенно хороши!!! 🤤 Зимой только надо тёплую одеждочку искать, чтобы попец не отмерз! 😄 ------- #фотографтараканова #natalitarakanova #наталитараканова #русь #alarusse #фотодляроссии #русскаякрасавица #russiangirl #vikings #amazonwoman #valkyrie #pagan #валькирия #амазонка #викинги #лагерта #lagertha #whitegirl #viking #велес #nord #nordic #эльфы #фэнтези #косплей #cosplay #elfcosplay #воительница

A post shared by Фотограф 📸❤️ФОТОСЕССИИ МОСКВА (@natali_tarakanova) on

In 2016 the Ivanovo circus on Ice in Kazan was the subject of multiple petitions to ban the use of muzzled polar bears in shows.

While trainers Yulia and Yuri Denisenko claim their work is integral to saving the bears from global warming, the animal performers. remain controversial. They say they have treated the four bears used in shows "like their own children" – even though circus goers have described the trainers hitting their animals for misbehaving.

Grin and bear it: Yulia Denisenko and Yuri Khokhlov have been accused of cruelty for their polar bear act with the Ivanovo circus. Photo / Vladimir Smirnov, TASS, Getty Images
Grin and bear it: Yulia Denisenko and Yuri Khokhlov have been accused of cruelty for their polar bear act with the Ivanovo circus. Photo / Vladimir Smirnov, TASS, Getty Images

The charisma of these animals is undeniable, but it has led to a legacy of the animals being exploited across Europe and Russia.


As a national symbol even premier Putin can't resist the allure of a photo-op with a grizzly animal. In 2010 he posed for a snap with a tranquilised polar bear on a trip to the campaign trail in the Arctic North.

Increasingly wary tourists are beginning to shun circuses and performances with live animals. However, with social media fuelling the demand for snaps with photogenic bears such as Stepan - there is a danger that the new frontline of animal cruelty is not found under a circus big top but on a smart phone screen.