While traveling in Northern India some years ago, I visited Agra to see the renowned Taj Mahal and take pictures of the monument that is considered the ultimate tribute to love. I didn't realize at the time that Agra also held a dark secret - the cruel practice of poaching bears from the wild and training them to "dance" for tourists. Dancing bears have been outlawed for nearly 40 years under India’s Wildlife Protection Act – however, the cruelty continues.
The hard and painful life of a dancing bear
Sloth bears are poached from the wild, usually as cubs, and trained to "dance" for tourists and spectators in India. Poachers either kill the mothers or snatch cubs from unguarded dens. Many bear cubs die from neglect and dehydration before they are sold. Those who survive spend their first months desperate to return to their mothers and natural habitat.
To prevent human injuries, the cubs’ teeth are filed down or broken off which maims these bears for life. The young bears then have holes pierced through their noses or muzzles, because these are the most sensitive parts of the animal. A rope is passed through the raw wound without the use of anesthetic. Tugging on the rope causes the bear intense pain, giving the owner total control over the animal. Years of conditioning allows owners to make adult bears “dance” on command.
Prevented from following their natural urges to roam, climb and create dens, many bears display repetitive movements (stereotypical behaviors) characteristic of severe stress. By the time they are adult, captive bears will have learned to “dance.” The larger a bear is, the more impressive the sight is deemed to be.
Promoting long-term solutions
Public campaigning against this practice has significantly reduced the number of dancing bears on India’s main tourist trails. But the shows have moved to more receptive rural areas where animal welfare education is rare and people are unlikely to report dancing bears to the authorities.
A lot of work remains to be done before we can truly celebrate the end of this cruel practice; more bears remain in need of rescue. Learn more about WSPA’s work for bears around the world – including our work with the Wildlife Trust of India in organizing animal welfare awareness programs and providing training to law enforcement agents– and visit WSPA’s Compassionate Travel website for some easy-to-follow tips on how you can do your part by never supporting a tourist “attraction” that disregards animal welfare.