They were stolen from their mothers, their teeth and claws were ripped out, and they were forced to dance. But it looks like the misery is over for the sloth bears of India.
40 years after the Indian government banned dancing bears, activists have finally been able to enforce the law. “The World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) and India-based Wildlife SOS, which runs sanctuaries for bears, have… declared an end to the practice in the last few months,” reports Bikyamasr.
“It’s taken us many years but all the tribesmen we keep track of have moved on to different livelihoods,” Vivek Menon from the non-profit Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) said. But it “was very difficult to convince the bear trainers to give up their work. Most of them were very scared, they have never known any other way of life but this,’ WSPA campaign coordinator Aniruddha Mookerjee” said.
Their training methods were brutal. Owners forced iron rods through bear cubs sensitive snouts, then ran rope through them to control the bears (see pictures here). The bears were underfed and malnourished. One training technique was forcing them to “stand on hot plates while music played; the bears hopped on the plates to avoid the burning pain, which became associated in their minds with the sound of the music. Eventually, just hearing the music caused the bears to repeat this ‘dancing’ movement.”
“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.”
Most of those who trained and owned dancing bears in India were members of the nomadic and generally poor Kalandar people. Activists worked to find them alternative livelihoods, like baking and hauling, that pay more than exploiting the bears did. Activists have also worked to create sanctuaries so retired bears have somewhere to go.
“The widespread poaching of bear cubs and the killing of mother bears clearly affects the population of the species,” Menon said. Dawn reports that in “the last three decades, the number of sloth bears, a species native to South Asia, has fallen by at least 30 per cent, according to the IUCN-SSC Bear Specialist Group (BSG). There are now less than 20,000 of them.”
India’s dancing bears illustrate the problem with forcing non-human animals to entertain humans. Starting from procuring the animals, which required killing their mothers and stealing them as cubs, to training them, which was done by beating, burning, and otherwise injuring and hurting the bears, to maintaining them, which would be expensive to do correctly and therefore involved malnutrition and the absence of veterinary care, there was nothing natural or good for the bears in this life.
As we celebrate the end of dancing bears, let’s turn our attention to animals neglected in roadside zoos, beaten in circuses, deprived in many zoos and aquariums, and harassed in petting zoos. There is plenty of animal entertainment going on in our own backyards that calls out for our attention and activism. This battle is won but the war continues.
Photo credit: iStockphoto