Refuge for former dancing bears allows Bulgaria to enforce bear protection law
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, October 2002:
BELITSA, Bulgaria–Nine years after Bulgaria first tried to
ban training and exhibiting so-called dancing bears, bears are still
shuffling in chains to music on street corners. But the show is
almost over, officials say, because new legislation adopted in July
2002 substantially reinforces the 1993 law –and, as important, the
not-quite-two-year-old Belitsa Dancing Bear Park in the woodland
reserves of the Rila mountains at last gives police a place to take
bears they confiscate.
Like many other animal protection laws hastily adopted within
the former Eastern Bloc after the collapse of Communism, the
original law protecting bears went unenforced because there was no
way to make it work.
“The law was useless because what was a policeman to
do–bring a bear to the station?” asks Tsvetelina Ivanova of Vier
Pfoten, the 250,000-member organization which–in partnership with
the Brigitte Bardot Foundation and the Bulgarian government –opened
the Belitsa Dancing Bear Park in November 2000.
The existence of the bear park encouraged the Bulgarian
parliament to expand the prohibition on training and exhibiting
dancing bears. The new law bans all exhibitions of bears to paying
visitiors, as well as buying and selling bears, eliminating
loopholes in the old law that enabled dancing bear acts to stay in
Of even greater significance to the well-being of bears, as
some neighboring nations rush to develop trophy hunting industries,
the new Bulgarian law prohibits bear hunting. Since regulated
hunting in much of the former Iron Curtain nations is reputedly more
a matter of trying to tax the slaughter than of restraining it, the
Rila mountains themselves could become a quasi-bear refuge: one of
the last places where the biggest land predators left in Europe are
The Belitsa bear park now keeps six former dancing bears on a
2.7-acre site about two hours southeast of Sofia, the Bulgarian
capital city. The bears are close cousins of the feared North
American grizzly, but are smaller, and the European and Asian brown
bear varieties are rarely dangerous to humans.
“Experts say these bears can no longer be re-integrated into
the wild,” says Ivanova. “The bear park is the best alternative. We
are trying to make it as close to their natural habitat as possible.”
Their new home includes forest resembling their natural
habitat, cool swimming pools, and caves for hibernation. Their
morning meal of bread, fruit, and vegetables is tossed in different
places around a spacious grassy field, forcing the animals to smell
out their food as they would in the wild.
Sixteen dancing bears still legally tour Bulgaria, and 11
others perform illegally, Vier Pfoten believes.
New construction at the park begun in mid-2002 will add 16
acres to the sanctuary. It is expected to be completed before
winter, and is intended to accommodate the remaining bears,
finally ridding Bulgaria of a cruel entertainment which was recorded
as existing in the region as far back as Roman times.
Like the original facilities, the $773,000 expansion is
jointly funded by Vier Pfoten and the Brigitte Bardot Foundation.
It will include natural swimming pools and streams, will be
entirely forested, and is being built along the sloping mountain
side, to create a habitat resembling those that wild bears tend to
pick for themselves.
Captured as cubs, the bears are subjected to torturous
conditioning that begins with forcing them to walk over hot metal
plates or hot coals. Declawing operations often make their paws even
more sensitive than they normally would be–and a bear’s paws are
naturally sensitive enough to pick ripe berries without crushing all
the juice out of them or getting stuck by thorns.
The young bears jump in pain while loud music is played. Thus
they learn to “dance” when they hear the music. A metal ring
inserted through their noses and interior lips keeps them under
control. A tug of the chain attached to the ring causes the bear
excruciating pain. Ring scars are still grossly visible on all six
bears now at the park.
I was greeted upon arrival by Malinka, who immediately began
performing her gypsy-trained dance–three steps left, then three
steps right. For 13 years she was forced to behave this way. She is
the only bear at the park who continues to perform.
“When Malinka first came here, she would dance all day long,
but less and less, until now she dances only a couple of hours a
day,” says the bear keeper, Ibrahim Garaliski.
“The greatest difficulty that they had to overcome was the
mental disturbance that they suffered. They used to live up to 20
hours in a day stuck in one small room, with just enough room to
turn. Now they move freely, swim, and play,” explains Amir
Khalil, DVM, president of Vier Pfoten Bulgaria. “Many of them
came sick, suffering from worms and parasites, because they were
sharing their housing with farm animals.”
Stanka, 20, arrived in 2001 with a stomach tumor. Her fur
had fallen out and her stomach was bloated. She had also lost an
eye. Today she moves well, and appears strong and healthy, with a
shiny new golden brown coat. However, Stanka is the least visible
of the bears, who spend much of their time out in the open, by the
fence, seeming to enjoy the company of their human visitors.
“The other bears treat her badly. They pick on her and take
her food because she is the oldest and weakest,” says bear keeper
Garaliski. For this reason, Stanka is fed in the furthest corner of
The bears are re-learning to hibernate. As performers, they
worked all winter.
“Only Malinka hibernated last winter,” Gareliski says.
“Instead of using our caves, she dug her own hole in the forest. We
hope this winter they will all hibernate.”
Among the more controversial aspects of the sanctuary is that
Vier Pfoten bought the dancing bears, rather than relying upon
confiscation. Vier Pfoten defends their action by emphasizing that
gypsy bear training is a tradition handed down from one generation to
the next. The families of trainers have been training bears for
their entire lives and lack any other occupational knowledge.
“We give them 10,000 leva ($5000 U.S.), but not for the
bear. It is to give the owners a chance to begin a new career,”
explains Khalil. “Some of these bears supported families of up to 28
people. We want to save animals, not kill people.”
The money is equivalent to four times the Bulgarian average
annual wage, and the payments sometimes backfire. Christian Science
Monitor correspondent Matthew Brunwasser watched in July 2002 as
former dancing bear owners Maria and Angel Angelova sold their bear
to Vier Pfoten, then reported that they were said to have begun
exhibiting a monkey in Sofia.
The Brigitte Bardot Foundation refuses to reward people they
believe to be guilty of animal cruelty and does not contribute funds
toward buying the bears.
Other critics complain that the bears are better fed than
many Bulgarian people, especially the 11,000 inhabitants of
Belitsa, where the 1991 closure of a nearby uranium mine pushed the
local unemployment rate above 50%. The bears’ diet reportedly costs
nearly twice as much apiece as local per capita food expenditure for
But Vier Pfoten has committed to do more than just help the
bears. “We help the community in many ways both directly, through
humanitarian aid, and indirectly, by increasing the number of
tourists, creating jobs,” says Ivanova.
Based in Vienna, raising funds in Austria, Germany, and
Switzerland, Vier Pfoten has assisted the local orphanage and
schools, helped to build a sports hall, and is presently helping
Belitsa to open a hospital.
“Before 1989,” when the Soviet-backed regime of former
dictator Todor Zhivkov fell, “Belitsa was a flourishing town with a
strong tourism business,” mayor Hassan Ilan said, “but now the
whole country is poor and no one travels. But with the lure of the
bear park and other projects, I think it is possible to get back to
the good old days.”
The town has just begun repairing the dilapidated road that
leads to the park, which has already caught the eye of three tourist
agencies. They have agreed to include the sanctuary and Belitsa on
The sanctuary already attracts 200 visitors per week, who
often stay in the town, or at least pause to visit. The guestbook
at the park entrance is filled with praise from visitors coming from
all over Europe.
Coinciding with the bear park construction, local
entrepreneurs Zdravko and Detelina Vasilev built a four-star hotel
which today employs 18 fulltime workers. The hotel is usually full
now, and is adding rooms.
“At first we never expected to have so many visitors,” grins
“The bear park has been a blessing to the businesses, but
among those who are still unemployed, it stirs feelings of
bitterness,” acknowledges Mayor Ilan. “Despite this,” he says,
“everyone goes to visit the bears and be entertained.”
As the bears have a life expectancy of between 30 and 35
years, and the youngest is only five years old, the park needs the
support of tourism to achieve economic stability.
And what do the bears have to say about all this?
The bears do not seem to mind. After spending their entire
lives surrounded by human beings, they have grown accustomed to the
human presence, and spend much of their time out in the open near
the fences and visitor platform, staring curiously back.