International SOS for Serbian Brown Bears

by Susan R. Johnson

Serbia, at the heart of former Yugoslavia and the Balkans, is one of the few places left in Europe where brown bears continue to be cruelly abused for profit and human amusement. Despite being internationally recognized as an endangered species, the animals have been subject to brutal training methods by gypsies, also known as Roma, to dance for crowds. Until relatively recently, dancing bears were widely tolerated, but today it seems that a majority of citizens disapprove of such abuse. Only a few Roma families still keep dancing bears as a secondary, summer income. They also trade the bears both nationally and across country lines for personal gain.

Serbia, unlike its neighbors Romania and Bulgaria, has yet to establish a modern, transparent, accountable and professionally managed national sanctuary for these creatures. It is becoming an increasingly urgent objective, since without it—and without stronger enforcement of laws against keeping, mistreating or trading endangered animals—the magnificent Serbian brown bear may soon vanish from its natural historical habitat.

There is a pressing need for Serbian authorities, international organizations and Serbian animal activists to assemble and create a plan to keep Serbian bears in Serbia, as well as enforce existing laws to protect those still there. These groups should also provide appropriate financial and political support to the only existing high-quality bear rehabilitation center in Banostor and establish a permanent bear sanctuary.

What Happens to Brown Bears in Serbia?
For a bear cub to end up in the hands of a human owner, his or her mother first must die. This is usually done by poachers, who track female bears and kill those who do not allow their cubs to be taken from them. The cubs are then sold to various people, but almost always end up with Roma. These gypsies use gruesome and cruel methods to tame the bears, such as piercing the nose and lips with an awl without anesthesia and inserting a metal muzzle attached to one or more chains.

To train the cub to “dance,” a fire is lit in a deep hole and the embers are covered with a tin plate. The cub is thrown into the hole on the burning tin and forced to hop around in pain on its back feet to the sound of a kettledrum, while gypsies pull the muzzle chain. Sometimes the owner throws the chain over a tall branch, pulling it taught and hitting the cub's forelegs with a stick to force the cub back on his or her feet to “dance."

Taking the Initiative
In March of 1998, the small Serbian nongovernmental organization (NGO) known as Arka launched the project “Protect the Bears” with the intent to help brown bears in the wild and captivity. Arka had been established three years earlier by Branka and Pavel Pasko, a couple who have dedicated their lives to the protection and welfare of animals. The bear project was conceived in several phases: (1) research the problem, locate and identify captive and dancing bears, and determine if any are being kept according to the law; (2) build temporary shelters or rehabilitation centers where confiscated bears could be treated and prepared for transfer to a national sanctuary; and (3) establish a permanent national sanctuary in the Fruska Gora National Park.

What Has Been Done?
Arka, working with relevant individuals and institutions, including veterinarians, hunting inspectors and police, researched the current “bear situation” as the first phase of “Protect the Bears.” They visited many gypsy settlements to talk with dancing bear owners in order to understand their motives and practices. They would then inform the owners that keeping and abusing bears was illegal under the 1993 Law on Hunting and the 1992 Law on Public Peace and Order. Not a single bear “owner” contacted during this phase or encountered since has been able to provide legal documentation proving how he came into possession of the bear or verifying the animal's origin. But owners resist confiscation because they are confident they can sell a bear for thousands of Euros. All those spoken to wanted either money for their bear, a state pension or a piece of land.

The next phase of the project was to build a temporary shelter and start confiscating the dancing bears. The first bear to be seized was Bozana from the town of Pancevo, located near the capital city of Belgrade. The rescue was carried out on October 25, 1998, and the bear was placed in a temporary shelter in northern Serbia with a small private zoo. Arka, working with local authorities, made plans for three more confiscations to be carried out in March of 1999; but the zoo, under pressure from the hunting lobby in the Ministry of Agriculture, backed out of the agreement. When NATO began bombing Serbia in late March that same year, plans were further postponed.


The Paskos turned to Plan B and used the time to complete a “temporary” facility for nine bears on their property in Banostor along the Danube River. By November 1999, they confiscated three more bears: Mishko, from a factory yard in the town of Kraljevo, who was voluntarily handed over; Kasandra, with extremely damaged lips, kept in the shell of a small car in the town of Kruseveac; and Marija from the town of Paracin.

Startled by Arka's action aided by local authorities, other dancing bear owners bartered their bears for horses with other Roma, which complicated finding them. Police were still able to locate the owner of two more dancing bears, Uske and Dorinda, in the town of Jagodina, where they were being kept in a yard tied to a tree. Uske, a female about six or seven years old when seized, was in relatively good physical condition, but aggressive due to psychological problems from abuse. Dorinda had deliberately been blinded and suffered a cancerous melanoma on her paw. She died in Arka's Bear Rehab Center three years later.

The last bear to be confiscated was Elvis, who lost a front leg when he was confined in the same cage as his father at the Palic Zoo. The zoo illegally released Elvis in the Tara National Park, where he soon approached a children's camp to forage for food. The park director ordered him to be shot. Luckily for Elvis, a local man recognized him from the zoo and contacted Arka to ask for their help in saving Elvis. He was rescued on March 8, 2002. Arka estimates that there may be still at least 10 bears in Serbia that should be seized, but every confiscation has to be carefully prepared and carried out by Arka in cooperation with responsible local authorities.

In August of last year, local police contacted the organization asking for their assistance in confiscating three more dancing bears. The joint operation was in the midst of seeking help from the Ministry of Environment, when they learned that the Bulgarian representative of an Austrian NGO had illegally bought the three bears and obtained export certificates from the Ministry of Environment to transfer them to a sanctuary in Bulgaria. Such illegal buying—regardless of motive—only encourages the poaching and capture of bears in Serbia. Arka contacted responsible officials, including the Public Prosecutor in Belgrade, and the export licenses were cancelled. Action to confiscate these three bears is on hold. Arka is in need of funds, and their request to the Ministry of Environment for financial support is still pending.

A Note from the Author
For nearly 10 years and against incredible odds, Branka and Pavel Pasko have established and maintained the Bear Rehabilitation Center in their yard in Banostor. By using primarily their own resources, they have somehow managed to provide an important humane service that has saved seven bears to date. Now they need help to continue operating their “temporary” facility, while pursuing their dream to establish a permanent sanctuary in the Fruska Gora National Park.

Scientific research shows that bears were actually living in Fruska Gora more than a thousand years ago, making it the perfect site for a sanctuary. The Paskos hope the site would also become a special nature school for children, where they could learn about bears and their right to live freely in their native habitat.

Arka has met with officials at the Serbian Ministry of Environment and requested a meeting with the dynamic young politician now serving as its new Minister. In early November, I joined Arka for a meeting with the Minister's Chief of Staff. As the meeting came to a close, the official asked me for suggestions on a course of action.

I have visited the Bear Center at Banostor several times and was impressed with the facility. My suggestions for the Minister were those outlined at the beginning of this article: Keep Serbian bears in Serbia, enforce the laws more seriously, and provide government support to Arka's facility at least until a permanent sanctuary is established and operating successfully.

The Banostor Bear shelter and the brown bears being abused, forced to dance, or caught and sold need international help. Without it, current efforts will not be sustainable. Furthermore, much international attention and assistance will be needed to give new impetus to the “Protect the Bears” project and establish a proper sanctuary in Serbia. Won't you join me in helping the bears?

Susan R. Johnson has been a career foreign service officer since 1979, and a life-long animal lover. For over 10 years, she has supported animal welfare groups in Romania, Bosnia and Serbia, and advocates compassionate public policy and action to improve conditions for animals in the Balkans.

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