Freedom bought for Bulgaria's last dancing bears

Bulgaria’s last three dancing bears are being sent to a mountain sanctuary after activists bought their freedom on Friday in an effort to stamp out the centuries-old tradition that has survived in the Balkans despite being outlawed.

The trio—eight-year-old Mima, Misho (19) and Svetla (17)—will join another 20 brown bears in their new home on Mount Rila, a 12ha sanctuary 180km south of Sofia partly funded by a foundation run by former French actress Brigitte Bardot.

“Our aim is to make their life more bearable in their remaining years,” said Ioana Tomescu, of the Austria-based Four Paws Foundation.

Throughout the Balkans, families—mostly among the Gypsy or Roma community—have long earned a living through performing bears. But the brutal techniques used to train them led the practice to be banned.

The bears are captured while still young. Their nose or lips are pierced, and a metal ring attached to a chain is inserted; the pain ensures instant submission.

The cubs are forced to walk on burning embers or a hot sheet of metal, and hop from one hind leg to the other in order to escape the burning while their trainer beats a drum.
The process is repeated until the bear learns to connect the drum to the pain.

As dancing bears are illegal, authorities could simply have taken Mima, Misho and Svetla away from their owners, in the eastern village of Getsovo.

Instead, the Four Paws Foundation decided to pay for their freedom by giving their owners small grants to set up new businesses. It did not reveal how much was paid. In return, the owners signed declarations pledging never to take up the bear-dancing business again.—Sapa-AP

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