Last Dance: Sloth Bears Were Literally Dying to Entertain People

Wildlife SOS India has successfully eliminated the practice of dancing bears.
Thanks to Wildlife SOS India, this female sloth bear will never have to dance her life away. (Molly Riley/Reuters)
Oct 15, 2012
A former Gourmet staffer, Lawrence enjoys writing about design, food, travel, and lots of other stuff.

When I first read this past weekend that India was ending its tradition of dancing bears, I was sort of confused. How exactly were they making bears dance? Then I discovered the awful truth.

The nonprofit group Looking-Glass News explained in 2006 that, “The sloth bear has been used as a traditional performance act by people called Kalanders, who once entertained at royal palaces hundreds of years ago. Although now banned by a wildlife protection act, around 800 bears are still being used by street entertainers across India.”

“Young bears are bought from illegal poachers and then subjected to a life of cruelty. Rods are driven through their muzzles which never heal, and the bears are disciplined to perform for the rest of their short lives. Most die young of disease and infections and many become blind from malnutrition.”

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In a 2009 article, The Telegraph, reported on a British dentist who traveled to India to perform root canal treatment on rescued dancing bears whose teeth had been smashed with iron bars. What he found was that, “The animals were in great pain, suffering from skin and mouth infections and psychologically damaged after years of being burned and beaten as part of their 'training' to perform dance routines. Even after they are rescued, some continue to make 'weaving' movements if they hear whistling sounds. Most of the bears had been trained to perform specific dances to individual tunes, like pretending to strum a guitar.”

Fortunately, the group Wildlife SOS India has been running a bear rescue and rehabilitation program since 2000, and National Geographic reported last Friday that they’ve finally succeeded in ending this barbaric 400-year-old practice.

In an interview with Geeta Seshamani and Kartick Satyanarayan, the founders of Wildlife SOS India, they noted that, “Annually it was estimated over 200 bear cubs were poached to supply the demand created by the Kalandars of which less than one third survived to reach the Kalandars for training. The cubs had a high mortality due to the brutality of handling, transportation stress, aggravated by the use of opium to keep the animals quiet in sacks or baskets, while smuggling them in trains and buses to the markets.”

Amazingly, Wildlife SOS was able to engage with the Kalandar community and gain their trust while living with them in over 60 villages. They eventually convinced the Kalandars to voluntarily hand over their bears, and Wildlife SOS returned the favor with skill training and one-time seed funds to help establish the Kalandars in alternate livelihoods.

And not a moment too soon for the sloth bears, who the National Zoological Park (a part of the Smithsonian Institution) describe as disheveled in appearance and who tend to be a “noisy, busy bear. It grunts and snorts as it pulls down branches to get fruit, digs for termites, or snuffles under debris for grubs and beetles. A sloth bear uses its lips like a vacuum, making rapid, loud ‘kerfump’ noises as it sucks insects from their nests.”

They also note that sloth bears lead solitary lives and that most are nocturnal. And now they can certainly sleep better at night. I know I will.

Were you aware of India’s practice of the dancing bears?

Lawrence Karol is a writer and editor who lives with his dog, Mike. He is a former Gourmet staffer and enjoys writing about design, food, travel and lots of other stuff. @WriteEditDream | Email Lawrence |

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