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These feet had to stop dancing: The trauma experienced by dancing bears

August 18, 2019

Continuing with the undesirable practices of dancing animals, we must refer to an ancient practice, of making bears “dance” which has a long history and was once widely spread in Europe and Asia. Today, though the practice got banned several years ago, till recently the last vestiges survived, mostly in countries of the Indian subcontinent, including India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Nepal. On December 19, 2017, the last dancing bear in this region was rescued, bringing to an end a terrible practice of cruelty and torture. When the Nepalese bear couple, Rangile and Sridevi were recovered, they bore severe signs of the trauma that they had undergone.

Almost invariably the bears are exploited by very poor people who have few economic options, and even less awareness of conservation needs. That is why several critically endangered species of bears were found in the bear dancing business. Among them were the critically endangered Himalayan Brown bear (Ursos arctos isabellinus), the vulnerable Asiatic Black bear (Ursus thibetanus laniger) and the vulnerable sloth bear (Melursus ursinus), of which only some 8,000 exist in the wild. It is important to note that in the wild a sloth bear can live more than 20 years. In captivity, however, a dancing bear rarely lives past the age of 7 or 8 years.

The bears used for the entertainment business were poached as cubs from the wild in a cruel manner that often necessitates the killing of the fiercely protective mother. Bear cubs are nursed by the mother for a year and stay with the mother for another two years before separating. Thus, when separated so, traumatised, some of these cubs die of shock or separation anxiety. Others succumb to neglect, dehydration or injuries received during the violence experienced during trafficking and what they are subjected to in human control. Survivors are sold to trainers, who use sticks and physical threats to teach the orphaned cubs to stand, move like humans on their two hind legs, and perform other tricks. Among the practices employed to subjugate the bears and make them incapable of hurting the human handlers that own them down the chain, include knocking off the cubs' teeth and clipping of nails, both extremely painful procedures for the bears, since all of this is done without anaesthesia.

The early “training” of the bears was a study in psychological control. In Europe, their paws were greased and then they were made to stand on plates that had hot embers and coals under them, while music played. The bear would keep jumping around to escape the heat that would burn their greased paws. Meanwhile, all the time they would play their drum, violin or tambourine. The sound of the music would get associated in their mind to the pain and so whenever they heard the music again they would start jumping in a “dancing” movement, as if in avoidance of the burning sensation.

The most delicate and vulnerable part of the bear's anatomy is its nose and in South Asia the practice was for the trainers to pierce the snout of the bear with a hot poker or piece of metal, to make a permanent hole through which a rope is anchored to control the bear. The trainers would then pass a chain through it. The yanks on the chain would ensure that the muzzle wound never healed and that the bear 'performed' and remained in control. It is important to recognise that the dancing bears of South Asia were primarily under the control of a very poor and nomadic people known as the Kalandar (or Qalandar), who come from a line of tribesmen that once entertained northern India's Mughal emperors with trained-animal acts. Thus, working with animals for entertainment is the traditional livelihood of the tribe. Sometimes these people also had side businesses selling animal parts as medicines and good-luck charms. And today while the dancing bears are a thing of the past, bear organ trade is still very much a reality.

While animal activists often emotionally objected to the cruelty inherent in the dance of the bears, animal and wildlife organisations looked upon the challenge as a two pronged one - of protecting the animals and of creating alternative pathways of earnings to sustain livelihoods for the Kalandars. Bear dancing was technically outlawed by the Indian government in 1972, but the practice continued for many years after the statutory move, partly because the Kalandar had no alternative and also because, until the early 21st century, in the absence of a place to put confiscated bear, enforcement was therefore somewhat pointless.

From 2003, the rescued bears went to the Agra sanctuary, created by the Union Ministry of Environment's 'Dancing Bear Rehabilitation Programme.' Since then, the bears have gone to that facility and two others—one in Bannerghatta, near Bangalore, and another in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh state. The sanctuaries are run by Wildlife SOS with other animal welfare organizations contribute funding. Bannerghatta is home to Raju, India's last dancing bear who was rescued from Chikka Haravalli in Karnataka in 2009, but in such a sorry state that it took seven years for his wounds to heal.

The owners, having been poor themselves, mostly had been unable to feed themselves adequately and the bears were severely nutritionally deficient too. Consequently many bears bore signs of deprivation including loss of fur, cataracts, often leading to blindness. Once in these rehabilitation centres that were set up from 2005 onwards, a long process of rehabilitation began that includes the removal of the chain or rope in the soft tissue of their nose, this time under anaesthesia. Most rescued bears are unable to ever return to the wild. But with their nasal ropes removed, which are usually badly infected and bleeding, they are free from their dancing bear obligations and can now just be bears!

This dancing bear programme may not have ended this terrible practice had not a comprehensive programme been introduced. The Kalandars were recognized by the Indian government as an economically deprived tribe, and economic and social upliftment programmes were initiated for them, albeit, many say, that they have not been offered a comprehensive package. International animal welfare organizations are working with them to help them obtain better economic conditions, but above all to effect a behaviour change stemming from the realisation that a livelihood that uses animals for entertainment is not sustainable.

Many animal lovers fail to understand that as the most intelligent species, why does man need such persuasion to give up a cruel practice. There is no denying the fact that it is difficult to abandon long-held cultural and economic practices, and the success with the Kalandars and their readiness to give up their traditional trade came, not because of legislations or developing a conscience, but only because they were given the help they need to make a new start. In exchange for the bears, the Kalandars are given job training and equipment for alternative occupations, thereby creating a win-win paradigm for both parties, so that those furry paws and injured feet could stop dancing to feed their impoverished owners.

Dr. Arshiya Sethi, trained in Kathak, has served as dance critic, commentator, institution builder for the arts, having created both tangible and intangible institutions and equities. She has been a Fulbright Arts Fellow (2003-2004) and a post doctoral Fulbright (2016-2017). Her doctoral work has been on the link between politics and dance in the case of Sattriya. She is presently working on the intersection of dance and activism / social justice as well as Indian dance in the diaspora.

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