Bulgaria`s rescued bears still dance alone
Performing bears are still common in Ukraine, Serbia and Russia... As cubs, they are held by their owners on hot iron plates. This made them lift their feet to avoid the pain and while this happened, music played... A park was created to rescue the bears...
Misho got up and danced for us the minute we peered through the electrified fence. We watched him swaying backwards and forwards, padding the bare ground with his paws, as he`d done a thousand times before.
As long as we looked he performed. It was a mindless and pathetic soft-shoe shuffle, learnt through torture. Only as we dragged ourselves away, tears in our eyes, did this gigantic creature stop the world`s saddest dance.
It will take Misho, the latest arrival at Dancing Bears Park, Bulgaria`s brown bear sanctuary, months to throw off a lifetime`s cruel conditioning. Even then, he`ll never be quite normal, explained Petar, our guide.
Last July this 19-year-old dancing bear joined 24 others at the park near Belitsa, deep in the Pirin Mountains, making him the last to be rescued from the humiliation of performing before paying audiences.
Like all the bears in the eight-year-old sanctuary, he was prised from his owner with the help of a 5,000 EUR compensation payment (just over 4,100 pounds). Brigitte Bardot provides half the funding for Dancing Bears Park, along with Vier Pfoten, an Austrian animal charity.
As Petar took us round the five-acre sanctuary, he explained that, for now, Misha must live in the quarantine sector along with Svetla, 17, and Mima, eight.
"They need constant care and attention, so we put them together," he said. "When they improve, they`ll join the rest of the bears in the other six sectors. They have gone through extensive physical and psychological abuse over the years."
He explained that, as cubs, they were held by their owners on hot iron plates. This made them lift their feet to avoid the pain and while this happened, music played. In this way they were conditioned to dance.
A red-hot needle was forced through the nose - a highly sensitive organ - to create a hole for an iron ring attached to a chain. Some have lost their claws and teeth, and they all have skin problems and high blood pressure. Dobri, a 20-year-old male, is blind because of the vodka his owner forced down him to try to curb his aggression.
The spectacle of the dancing bear was presented to audiences for centuries but until now little was known about the brutality behind it. "Now the truth is out and it has stopped," said Petar. "People should come here and learn about this."
Electrified fences, 15ft high, prevent the bears escaping and the public getting in. This home for abused bears has been sited on a steep, forested hillside where wild bears already roam. This, according to park officials, makes the rescued bears feel at home.
The keepers bury their food - berries, honey, chicken, rabbit, fish and vegetables - so they have to search for it. This helps them rediscover their predatory instincts, long since conditioned out of them by their urban environment. Now some bears are starting to hibernate, something they have never done before.
"It`s beautiful to see," said Petar. But Dr Amir Khalil, the park`s chief vet, takes the view that the females are still too disturbed to learn how to become good mothers, so all the males have been castrated.
Attached to the office of the Dancing Bears Park is an educational centre with an account of each bear`s history. The legal position of performing bears is covered in detail: the park played a significant role in having the practice made illegal in the European Union.
While the Bulgarian chapter in this sorry saga has been brought to a close, there are other issues to be addressed. The conditions suffered by bears in Bulgarian zoos are deplorable and transfers to the park are planned. In addition, performing bears are still common in Ukraine, Serbia and Russia, and the campaign will focus on those countries next.