By Elizabeth Stanley
Kane/Miller Book Publishers
California 2003; ISBN1-929132-41-7
40 pages, $15.95
Many of us toil by day with focused determination, dreaming at night of a better life-perhaps one that is easier, richer, or more fulfilling. For the imprisoned brown bear in Elizabeth Stanley's The Deliverance of Dancing Bears, the dream is simply to be a bear. Freed from her cage and shackles and the controlling iron ring forcibly pierced through her nose she would be able to enjoy the warm sun, the crisp mountain water, and the enlivening forests to which her kind is best suited.
Sadly, these hopeful visions of freedom, leisure, and companionship are quashed each day by her tormentor, Halûk, who forces her to "dance" for unenlightened humans in order to gain a few coins for himself.
The Deliverance of Dancing Bears, which confronts the cruelty of caging bears and forcing them to dance for us, was published in Australia in 1994, and is now being brought to the U.S. for the first time. Even if it were devoid of text, one could interpret this tale by leafing through the book's vibrant pastel drawings. The text is carefully crafted, however, and Stanley describes the brutality in keeping dancing bears, without graphic detail that might be disturbing for the five to nine year old readers for whom the book is intended. She writes of the bear's claws being "blunted" and her powerful teeth "sawed." The bear "succumbed fearfully to the heavy chain latched to her ringed nose."
The Deliverance of Dancing Bears presents the immorality of forcing bears to dance. But how do we liberate enslaved animals? Is it just and wise to purchase a captive bear (or other creature) from his or her captor in order to free the beleaguered beast? I have experienced this dilemma across the globe; seeing poor, wretched animals for sale in public markets in South America and Asia. Like many others, I struggled with the desire to free the animals, cognizant that doing so would put money in the hands of despicable merchants who would then replace the animal I just saved with another.
Stanley answers the conundrum affirmatively through an old, compassionate villager, Yusuf, who buys the bear. "'How often have I watched you, poor beast, dancing humiliated in the market square on this loathsome chain,' he said. '...I feel too ashamed to have you dancing another day. I have no way of returning you to your home and your loved ones, but come with me, and I will restore to you a little happiness.'"
Initially, one can make a positive impact by freeing an individual animal. Then one can change the minds of the community in general. In this story, after selling the bear to Yusuf, Halûk surfaces with a new young dancing cub, and Yusuf steps in once more. This time, though, as the new bear is bought, the gathered local crowd begins to understand the depths of Halûk's wickedness and publicly shuns him. Ultimately, two bears are rescued, free to live out their lives in the garden at Yusuf's cottage in the woods; but perhaps more importantly, the community has been educated to the plight of these animals, reducing the likelihood that a similar situation would arise in the future.
Indeed, bear dancing is slowly being banned across the globe. As Stanley notes in her Postscript to the book, Greece and Turkey (the setting for the story) have outlawed bear dancing. There are still serious problems in other countries, however, including India and Bulgaria. What is the cost of freedom?
What price must be paid to make dreams come true? For Elizabeth Stanley, for Yusuf, for me, no price is too great.
-Adam M. Roberts