Animal Rights FTW India

How To Save A Life: The Dancing Bears Case Study

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India is known to be the land of dancing monkeys, snake charmers, camel races and elephant ride. Most of these animals are protected under the Wildlife Protection Act, Prevention of Cruelty against Animals and other such laws. But it’s been hard to actually prevent these cruelties against animals because of how they have developed over time. They are usually practiced by niche communities that have depended on this trade for their livelihood since generations. Banning these trades would mean robbing these communities of their identity. 

Dancing bears’ was one such problem. This practice was banned in India in 1972 under the Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972 yet, it was practiced as recently as  2009 by the Kalandar community, who were dependent on these bears for their livelihood.

This illegal practice was successfully eradicated in the year 2009 with strategic planning and campaigns designed by various animal activists, organizations and the government to specificall address the problems incurred. This sort of targetted planning can be used for other practices too.

Problem#1: Even if the animals were rescued, where would we rehabilitate them

Rescuing and rehabilitating animals has to be done with strategic planning and foresight. It’s not like one day you go, rescue 10 elephants from a circus, and your job’s done. Since these animals have gone through years of physical and mental trauma, they can’t simply be rescued and put back into the wild to fend for themselves. They need to be treated and rehabilitated before being freed. For this, they need rescue and rehabilitation centers until they are fully fit and healthy.

Animals like elephants and bears require huge open spaces and natural surroundings – a basic need if they have to achieve the same physical fitness as their counterparts in the wild. This basic need itself poses a huge problem in India, where overpopulation, farmland and forest land take up too much place to additionally accommodate space for these animals to have a healthy recovery. Take a small example of small shelter for homeless and rescued dogs. Due to lack of funds and land disputes, most of their shelters have become dysfunctional, and those that are still functioning lack infrastructure like ambulances, vets and caretakers.

Solution#1: Build rehabilitation centers first

Dancing bear

As mentioned, animal rescues need to be planned. From clearing the legal formalities to making sure you have enough space and resources to sustain their recovery like well-equipped centers, trained staff – vets and nurses and sufficient food etc. Only when this is achieved can we begin the rescue operations.

This was exactly what Wildlife SOS planned in the year 2002. Along with the Union Ministry of Environment, they pledged to eradicate the illegal and barbaric practice of dancing bears in India. Their strategy – called “Dancing Bear Rehabilitation Project”- was to first build rescue centers. They jointly built the 1st rescue center in India to house the rescued sloth bears. Until 2002, there was no center to house these bears, so even if the dancing bears were freed, there would be nowhere to put them. After this step, they opened their doors to  six rescued bears. Since then, there has been no stopping them. Soon, they expanded and established 4 more rescue centers. As of 2018, Wildlife SOS has rescued a total of 600 dancing bears, which have been given lifetime care in their rehabilitation centers.

Problem#2: Handlers would never go for it, this business has been in their families for years

The practice of dancing bears dates back to the 16th century and has been passed from generation to generation in the Kalandar community. At least 83% of the Kalandar community depend on bears and other forms of animals like snakes, monkeys etc. for their income and livelihood. Likewise, snake charming is a century old practice undertaken by ‘sepheras’ that derived these skills from their fathers or grandfathers. The young snake charmers who got into this profession at an early age have few other employable skills since they knew they could always depend on their ‘family business’. This lack of education paired with an always captivate audience – ensured this profession to stay active in the community. Before the successful campaign of eradication, a number of methods like forced confiscation of bears, arrests of the owner/charmer failed.

There was surely a need for a more holistic approach than a regressive one.

Solution#2: Provide rehabilitation for the bear handlers as well

To completely eradicate the dancing bears, the handlers need to be rehabilitating as much as the bears do. Simply taking the bears away could have long-term implications on the people on them and could prove to be counterproductive.

Kartick Satyanarayan, co-founder of Wildlife SOS, realized that if these bear handlers were offered another source of livelihood they would be willing to give up this practice, so that’s how they approached this. They convinced and helped one member of the community to set up a shop and he voluntarily surrendered his bear to the organization. Likewise, many others surrendered their bears in exchange for cycle rickshaws, carpet weaving units etc. Small children were sent to school for education so that they would not be compelled to take up the dancing bear as their profession. Similarly, they have been active in rescuing elephants from circuses and at the same time ensure that they provide jobs to the mahouts from these circuses so that they are not deprived of their income.

Problem#3: The animals are too mentally and physically scarred to make a full recovery 

When rescued from the hellish conditions, these animals suffer from various injuries – both physical and mental. For instance, as per a survey, 1 out of 10 dancing bears suffered from poor health and diseases like tuberculosis. Many bears lost their eyesight as a result of continuous hits on their heads while performing. More than the actual performances, training the cubs is the worst part. The cubs which are separated from their mothers, suffer from psychological distress due to a new location and environment. Some cubs are drugged with opium so that they can be transported to far-flung places. After 6-7 months of capture, their canines and claws are removed and a hot iron rod is pierced into their nose so that a rope or a metal instrument can be attached. This is done to get control of the animal.  At least 90% of bears rescued had their nose pierced.

Solution#3: Carefully develop therapies and diets for the animals

Experts from the various animal NGOs claim that although the physical wound is treated under the vet’s care, it is the psychological trauma that takes much longer to heal. As most of the animals that are rescued are undernourished a healthy diet for them then becomes a priority. For instance, the last bear rescued was under 60 kg of weight. What helps the bears recover from these traumas in these centers are the large spaces and nutritious diets. A 50-acre area within a forest in Bangalore was set up for the bears. On their arrival, the bears are vaccinated for diseases and their wounds are treated. As most of the bears were toothless, they are offered food which they can cope with. To promote natural behavior, these centers have artificial trees as well

Likewise, Wildlife SOS Elephant Conversation and Rescue Centre, which is also first of its kind, houses 20 rescued elephants. The aim of these centers is to reinforce the natural instincts of these creatures that were lost while they were chained, tortured and kept starving. They do this by advocating modern methods of training and advanced veterinary support. It’s usually done in a gradual manner so as to not overwhelm the animal.

Strategic planning and practical thinking ensured that the practice of dancing bears was successfully eradicated in India. That’s great news! But, there are still thousands of animals being used for entertainment in circuses, films, public fairs etc. India has taken a bold and commendable step of banning circuses from using wild animals for performance. Slowly and gradually we need to eradicate them all.

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