The Last of the Dancing Bears

story by Monica Minciu and Ionut Lesovici Romanian Alliance for the Protection of Animals

The issue of bears in captivity took the spotlight at a recent conference concerning the European Brown Bear in Central Europe, hosted last February in Bucharest, Romania by the Romanian Alliance for the Protection of Animals (APAR) and the Animal Welfare Institute. Topics ranging from the status and management of bear populations to the commercial traffic in bear products were also discussed at the fruitful meeting.

The Vier Pfoten Dancing Bear Park presented a model project for the humane housing of captive bears, and when APAR received an invitation to visit the sanctuary, our members jumped at the chance. We set out for the journey on a sunny winter day, talking about the bears and the stories we had heard from our grandparents. The gypsies sang for the animals, and it made them dance, we had been told.

But thanks to the park, located in the town of Belitsa, Bulgaria, we now know the truth. The bears were cruelly trained to "dance"—as young animals, they were forced to stand on burning metal plates while gypsies sang. An iron ring inserted in the bear's nose was attached to a chain that gave the gypsy complete control. In time, the intelligent creatures associated the gypsies' singing with these types of intolerable pain.

Fortunately, new laws dictate that dancing bears in Bulgaria will not stand on hot surfaces or be tortured with tugging nose rings any longer. Today, they are retired and enjoying their safe home at the Vier Pfoten headquarters.

Yet while keeping dancing bears is illegal in Bulgaria, the government does not strictly enforce the ban. Vier Pfoten found a way to convince gypsies to give up their animals by offering each owner a sufficient amount of money to allow him or her to find another profession. Around 25 dancing bears are officially registered, and most of them have been safely held in the sanctuary since its founding in November 2000.

The park is open for visitors and plans to operate for the rest of the bears' lives. The area in which it is situated, surrounded by three mountain ranges (the Rila, Pirin and Rhodope), is an ideal habitat for bears, but it is very difficult to reach—this is part of what makes it such a wonderful place.

From the roof of the park's information center, one can observe the vastness of this true sanctuary; it is a quiet, snowy forest, a temple of bears. When we visited on that cold day, some were hibernating, and others were hiding in the bushes. There was no singing, but one bear continued to rock back and forth for hours. Hopefully in these tranquil surroundings, someday he will learn to stop dancing.

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