NĂºria Querol-GEVHA

8 juni 2004 10:23

Animal rights activists buy freedom for 13 exploited dancing bears

They had an unbearable life, but some of Bulgaria's famed dancing bears now have it made in the shade.

Animal rights activists -- moved by the plight of 13 brown bears that were forced to dance on the streets to amuse tourists and enrich their Gypsy owners -- have bought the animals their freedom by giving small grants to the people who exploited them.

The furry giants since have been moved to a new, more natural life in a leafy, mountainous park.

"We want to make sure that in their remaining years, they will live a more bearable life," Helmut Dungler, who runs the Austria-based Four Paws Foundation, said Monday.

The bears are getting some deserved rest in their new home on Mount Rila, a 30-acre sanctuary 110 miles south of Sofia that's being touted as Europe's biggest bear park, project spokesman Krasimir Nikolov said.

For years, several Gypsy families earned a living by organizing bear dancing street shows in cities and resorts across Bulgaria.

The average monthly salary in Bulgaria is about $170, but generally far less among the country's Gypsies, many of whom are unemployed.

Because the practice is illegal, the bears could have simply been taken from their owners. Instead, the Bulgarian chapter of the Four Paws Foundation decided to pay for the animals' freedom through small grants to help the Gypsy families set up new businesses.

"In return, the owners signed declarations never to take up the bear business again," Nikolov said.

The new park was created together with an animal protection foundation run by former French actress Brigitte Bardot. It cost $2.4 million, Nikolov said.

The mighty animals' dancing was not the achievement of some sophisticated taming, but rather the result of a cruel technique -- the bear owner pulled a ring stuck in the bear's nose, causing it such pain that it moved around in a dance-like manner -- park attendant Ibrahim Garaliyski told The Press.

The foundation also is collecting donations so 11 other dancing bears can be moved to the park soon. For now, those bears are living with their owners, although they are no longer dancing. The bears have been fitted with a special chip to allow their easy identification.

Dancing bears, which shuffle around on their hind legs while their owners play music, are an old tradition in Bulgaria and other parts of the Balkans. In 2002, a man was critically injured after being mauled by a tethered bear in downtown Sofia, the capital.

Officials in neighboring Greece also have been cracking down on the practice.

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