The Dance of Fear

The bear cub cries. Its paws burn. The man pulls the chain that leads to a ring through its nose. He plays the violin while forcing the cub to stand on hot iron plates. The cub starts jumping to reduce the pain in its paws. The man will repeat this procedure again and again. He will repeat it until the bear remembers the sound of the violin and starts to dance – a dance of fear.

Scenes like these were common in Bulgaria in the 1990s. According to the animal rights organization Four Paws, people separated bear cubs from their mothers way too early to raise them for public entertainment. Kept in cages and fed on sugar and garbage, the bears were forced to perform their dance in public. 

The owners pierced the most sensitive parts of the bears' bodies and used chains to control them. Photo credit: Filipp Zinniker.

According to Four Paws, the owners removed their bears' teeth and claws without anesthesia. Afterwards, they poured alcohol in the wounds for disinfection. In an interview with the British broadcaster BBC, Four Paws veterinarian Dr. Amir Khalil says that dancing bears existed in Bulgaria since the Middle Ages.  

 In 1998, a law prohibited the training of brown bears in Bulgaria and declared them a protected species. Four years later, the government also banned their hunt, trade and show. 

Pictures displaying the life of dancing bears. Photo courtesy of Daniela Riess.

Today, Bulgaria’s former dancing bears live in peace in the Dancing Bears Park in Belitsa. Twenty-three bears from Bulgaria, Albania and Serbia have been rescued and brought to the sanctuary. Most of them look back on a life as dancing bears, some others came from zoos, circuses or private households. 

Former dancing bears enjoying the spacious park. Photo courtesy of Daniela Riess.

Rico and Yeta came from Albania in 2017. They were kept privately before Four Paws and Brigitte Bardot Foundation rescued them.

Rico and Yeta in the park. Photo courtesy of Daniela Riess.

“I am sure there are no dancing bears in Bulgaria anymore,” Velichka Trichkova, Dancing Bears Park tour guide, says. “The owners are not allowed to earn money with them, they would only have to feed them. And we worked hard to make the public aware. If your neighbor sees your dancing bear, he would call us.” 

Tour guide Velichka Trichkova. Photo courtesy of Daniela Riess

The Dancing Bears Park Belitsa is the only bear sanctuary in Bulgaria. The area covers 120,000m² of land next to the Rila mountains. It is divided into 7 sectors, which can be either connected or separated in order to form friendly groups and avoid territorial fights. Additionally, the sectors allow the animal keepers to enter the facilities for maintenance, hiding food and providing toys. Every sector contains a swimming pool and manmade dens.  

The park was set up by the animal rights organizations Four Paws and Brigitte Bardot Foundation in 2000. Back then, the organizations bought land in Bulgaria’s mountainside and rescued their first three bears. 

The logo of the Dancing Bears Park Belitsa. Photo courtesy of Daniela Riess.

Four Paws says on its website that they bought the bears from their owners. All former bear owners had to sign a contract that prohibited them from keeping bears. The last three Bulgarian dancing bears were rescued in 2007. 

Visitors pay 6 leva entrance fee to the sanctuary. The ticket includes access to a terrace with a view, an information center and a guided park tour. The sanctuary does not assure visitors that they will see bears as the animals are allowed to hide. 

The cashier's desk at the park entrance. Photo courtesy of Daniela Riess.

The park funds itself by donations as the entrance fee cannot cover all the costs. 

"We keep the fee low in order to provide education for everyone," tour guide Velichka says.  

Inside the information center of the park. Photo courtesy of Daniela Riess.

Visitors are not allowed to visit the park without a guide. “We want people to know the bears and their stories. We want to raise awareness for the cruel tradition of dancing bears, and we want people to know that this is a sanctuary and not a zoo,” Velichka says. 

The park is open every day from April to November, and it is closed from December to March as the bears hibernate. Around 300 to 400 people visit the sanctuary per day. 

The information center shows pictures, a video and artifacts that the bears' former owners used to train them.

A picture of a former dancing bear exhibited in the information center. Photo courtesy of Daniela Riess.

Violins, a nose ring, a muzzle and chains played the song of torture.  

A muzzle and chains exhibited in the information center. Photo courtesy of Daniela Riess.

In nature, bears dig caves and hibernate during the cold months. Bears kept in captivity are usually not allowed to follow their natural instincts as their hibernation would mean a loss of money for the owner. The employees of the Dancing Bears Park try to bring the bears closer to their natural behavior. 

“Almost all the bears hibernate in the winter – something they could not do in their lives as dancing bears, and which is an exceptionally good sign for their progress,” says the park brochure.

The sanctuary contains twelve manmade dens for the few bears that do not build their own.

Seven animal keepers work at the sanctuary. They feed the bears three times a day with the amount of food differing depending on the season. A grown-up bear eats 5kg per day in spring, 10kg in summer and 20kg in autumn in preparation for hibernating. The bear’s diet mainly consists of fruits, veggies, honey, nuts, bread, fish and meat.  

The bears' area. Photo courtesy of Daniela Riess.

The park employees constantly observe the bears in order to ensure the safety of the bears and visitors. Safety signs are posted throughout to ensure appropriate behavior. 

Fenced walking paths lead through the area. Photo courtesy of Daniela Riess.

The park has a medical room for any emergencies, and a veterinarian is ready to doctor the bears at any time. Three manmade dens are accessible from the medical center. 

Two of the manmade dens. Photo courtesy of Daniela Riess.

Most bears are traumatized by their past in captivity, Velichka says. They are too old to live in the wild. Some of the former dancing bears show weird behavioral patterns such as walking left and right for hours.

“They do that because they were used to be chained to a tree,” Velichka says. “They could not move further than two or three meters.”

34-year-old Sveta. Photo courtesy of Daniela Riess.

The Dancing Bears Park in Belitsa does not breed. It would upset the old, traumatized and fragile bears, and the cubs would be forced to live a life in captivity. Like Velichka says, “a sanctuary is not a zoo.”


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