A photograph showing emergency management personnel mistreating a young bear has sparked outrage in Mexico and alarmed environmental authorities, who acknowledge that animal abuse remains a serious problem in some parts of the country.

The head of the Profepa environmental protection agency, Hernando Guerrero, told Efe he was "very upset" over the abuse of the black bear - an endangered species in Mexico - and said prosecutors will seek to punish those responsible, including five suspects already identified, to the fullest extent of the law.

In the photograph, which was uploaded to social media sites, local firefighters and emergency workers with the northern municipality of Zaragoza, Coahuila state, are seen posing for photographs with a bear that had been bound spread-eagled after being caught Wednesday night on the city's outskirts.

One individual can be seen pulling the bear's ears.

"The outrage was greater on the social-media sites, but I'm ... very upset," Guerrero said, adding that the bear was released into its natural habitat - a mountainous area of northern Mexico - after she was found to be in good health.

"Luckily she wasn't harmed any further," Guerrero said, adding that Profepa will file a criminal complaint with the federal Attorney General's Office for animal abuse and will impose fines on those responsible.

The Profepa chief said prosecutors would seek the "maximum penalty" of nine years in prison, although the sentence will depend on the judge's assessment of the level of abuse and harm caused to the bear.

The fines to be handed down by Profepa could total as much as 3 million pesos ($233,000).

Although "we can't go outside the bounds of the law," the punishment needs to serve as an effective deterrent against future animal abuse, Guerrero said.

He also said the incident shows that volunteer firefighters and emergency personnel in certain areas of Mexico, especially small towns, are not trained to face these types of situations and lack environmental education.

These workers also need equipment to "sedate the animals and not harm them," the official added, while noting that in many Mexican regions animal care and control is "professional."

A petition containing some 33,000 signatures has been delivered to the emergency management office in Zaragoza and Profepa demanding "exemplary punishment" for those who participated in the animal abuse or stood idly by while it occurred. EFE