Rangeela, one of the two rescued sloth bears, stands next to his owner, who grips a chain that runs through the bear's muzzle. For years, Rangeela was forced to dance in front of crowds of people.
The longtime tradition of bear dancing, derided for its cruel training methods, is coming to an end in Nepal.
Nepalese law enforcement, with the help of the Jane Goodall Institute Nepal and the London-based nonprofit World Animal Protection, recently removed two sloth bears named Rangeela and Sridevi from their handlers, Mohammad Salman and Mohammad Momtaz, members of the semi-nomadic Nat community that traditionally made a living with street performances.
“Being there in person to help rescue the last known dancing bears in Nepal was surreal,” says Neil D’Cruze, global wildlife adviser at World Animal Protection.
“We know that Rangeela and Sridevi were suffering in captivity since they [were] poached from the wild and their muzzles were pierced with hot iron rods.”
Training bears of various species to dance for a paying audience was popular in the Middle Ages throughout Europe and Asia, and it remained common in Eastern Europe and Asia until the late 20th century, according to World Animal Protection.
Due to concerted efforts by animal welfare groups to rescue the bears and help their owners transition to new livelihoods, the practice has been coming to an end.
Countries including Albania, Bulgaria, Greece, India, Serbia, Turkey, and now Nepal are believed to no longer have dancing bears, but the practice continues in Pakistan.
“The sad reality is there are more wild animals suffering across the world just to entertain people,” says Manoj Gautam, the executive director of Jane Goodall Institute Nepal. “However, for these two sloth bears at least, a happy ending is finally in sight.”
Other organizations applaud the rescue. "The importance of this recent rescue, along with almost every bear rescue in 2017, is that these cruel animal practices, hidden behind the curtain of culture, are no longer accepted in a contemporary society," says Claire LaFrance, head of communications for the nonprofit Four Paws U.S., which itself has helped end bear dancing in several countries. "Countries like India, Nepal and Vietnam, who continuously strive for modernity, and to be taken seriously on a global scale, must end these backwards practices that exploit animals for profit."
Performing bears in Nepal are often poached from the wild and sold on the black market. In some cases, they’re taken as cubs—their mothers killed for the medicinal bile in their gall bladders or for their paws, which are served in an expensive soup or as traditional medicine.
A cub is typically subdued and trained through cruel methods. Its muzzle is pierced and a rope or ring is run through the hole to control the bear. Sometimes canines are pulled or filed down and the claws removed to prevent injury to the owner.
Sloth bears are known to be aggressive, D'Cruze says, so forcing them into submission is a traumatizing process that often involves beating the bear with a stick.
“There’s a constant use of fear and pain and aggression toward the animals,” says Gautam.
Once trained, the bear is taken onto the street to perform for money.
"Dancing bears, along with bears used as tourist attractions, for selfies, or near restaurants, suffer immensely," says LeFrance of Four Paws. "In our work with large animals in captivity, we have witnessed private citizens generally lack the skills and knowledge to provide a species-appropriate home for a complex animal such as a bear."
D’Cruze and Gautam had been following these bears and their owners for more than a year, waiting for the right time to mount a rescue. The plan was to approach the owners and convince them to give up the bears. But when Gautam and D’Cruze arrived at the bears’ last known location in remote town border town, they were nowhere to be found.
“In the end, we got lucky,” says Gautam. “A high-tech team of police on the ground were able to trace the phone numbers of the bear owners.”
The police confiscated the bears in the town of Iharbari, in southeastern Nepal, and apprehended four people, bringing them all to the district station. There will be no fines or arrests for those involved, but the bears’ owners were given a stern warning, according to Gautam, who witnessed the men's apprehension and its aftermath.
The bears were traumatized but in decent health, given the fact that they’d only been eating milk and rice for years.
“You could clearly see the stereotypic behavior, their psychological trauma. They were sucking their paws, jump up and down on benches,” Gautam says.
Their teeth had been removed, which is common for dancing bears, but their claws were still intact.
The bears are now awaiting transfer to a sanctuary, likely one in India. In the meantime, they’re living at a national park in Nepal—where two of the former owners have been hired to help care for them temporarily.
Part of ending bear dancing is providing economic opportunities for the people who run the circuses—which is why the two men were given temporary jobs.
The former owners “do understand there wasn’t much longevity left to this profession,” claims Gautam.
According to Gautam, the men also signed legal documents that say if they’re ever again found with a bear, the punishment will be much harsher.