Dancing sloth bear & handler (2006) (Rhealopez 168 – Creative Commons Licence)
Thanks to hard work by a number of animal charities working with governments, dancing bears may hopefully soon be a thing of the past. A survey sponsored by the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) in 1995 put the number of dancing bears in India at 1,200. By 2010 this figure is believed to have fallen to 10 to 15 bears in India and Nepal. However, the practice also continues in a number of other Asian and European countries and as recently as 2007 a public outcry ensued following the use of dancing bears by street entertainers in Spain.
During the Middle Ages dancing bears were a common and popular form of street entertainment throughout Europe and Asia. By the fifteenth century the practice was far less common in western Europe, although there were still dancing bears in Britain in the late nineteenth century (the practice was outlawed in 1911). Closely linked with travelling shows and individual entertainers it seems that the majority of dancing bear trainers were Romany people from eastern Europe and Asia. Dancing bears remained a common sight in eastern Europe and many parts of Asia well into the late twentieth century.
Dancing bears were captured from the wild as cubs and both brown and sloth bears (and possibly Himalayan black bears) were used. Syrian brown bear cubs were taken from the mountains of Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey and sloth bear cubs from the jungles of the Indian sub-continent. The practice of taking brown bear cubs to train as dancing bears is continuing in Siberia.
Following the capture of a cub or cubs in the wild, during which the mother is likely to be killed, the young animals are commonly prepared for training by having their claws trimmed or removed and a number of their teeth removed. A ring is then inserted into the bear’s nose and a muzzle placed on the snout. Training and subsequent manipulation is carried out through the infliction of pain using a staff attached to a rope which is in turn attached to the nose ring
Typically bears would be taught to dance by placing them onto platforms of metal above large piles of burning logs. As the metal became hot the bears would be forced onto their hind legs by the use of the pole and nose ring and would then begin lifting each paw in turn to relieve them from the heat. As the process continued a drum or other music was played which, over a number of weeks and months, the bear came to associate with the pain in its feet. Subsequently whenever the bear heard the drum or music it would begin to “dance”.
Whilst huge progress has been made towards eradicating dancing bears from the world the practice continues in a number of countries. The latest information from the countries in which the practice continued into the twenty-first century is as follows:
- Bulgaria: Reports indicate that the last dancing bears were rescued in 2007, but see also this article about a more recent rescue of a captive bear.
- India: Illegal but the poaching and use of bears for street entertainment continues to a limited extent (possibly 15 or less bears). Four bears were rescued in an anti-poaching operation in February 2013.
- Nepal: Sloth bears are poached for training as dancing bears in India – see the above link. Eight bears were rescued in 2010 but limited numbers are probably still extant and the 10 to 15 bears believed to remain in India may be used on both sides of the border.
- Pakistan: Whilst bear baiting certainly continues it is not clear if any dancing bears are still in use but it does seem likely that this is the case.
- Serbia: Apparently eradicated with the last dancing bears being rescued in 2012.
- Siberia (Russia): Little information is available but the practice of taking cubs and training them as dancing bears continues. Yakov’s Moscow Circus was publicising the inclusion of Siberian Dancing Bears in its United States show as recently as 2010. We have obtained footage of a bear performing in St. Petersburg as recently as March 2019 (see foot of page).
- Spain: No reports of dancing bears since 2007 (see link in first paragraph).
A number of organisations continue to work to bring an end to bear dancing, often through the provision of alternative employment opportunities for the bears’ handlers. Increased anti-poaching patrols, particularly in India, are a key step in cutting off the supply of cubs to be trained as dancing bears. Wherever the practice has been recently eradicated a close watch is needed in order to ensure that it does not spring up again.
Probably of most concern now is the situation in Russian Siberia. More information is needed on the current situation and government intervention will be a necessary, but likely difficult to obtain, prerequisite for the ending of the taking of cubs and for the rescue of existing dancing bears.
Bear Conservation is currently undertaking further research into the present status of dancing bears, particularly in Russia, with a view to launching a targeted campaign to finally bring this practice to an end throughout the world. If you would like to be notified when we launch this campaign please click here and send us an email.
The Bear Conservation video below was filmed in St. Petersburg, Russia in 2019.
Historic footage of dancing bears in Russia
The World’s Saddest Dance – a film from Four Paws UK about Bulgarian dancing bears.
Page updated 19 February 2021