The Dancing Bears of India: Moving Toward Freedom

A thin shaggy bear tethered to a rope that is laced through the tissue of his nose waves his paws and moves spasmodically on his hind legs before an audience.

A ‘DANCING’ BEAR IN INDIA

It should seem unlikely that this sad sight could be accepted as enjoyable entertainment by anyone. But failures of human empathy are omnipresent, and many people are unable to understand that animals do not enjoy acting like humans—that, in fact, they have to be forced to do so, usually through cruel means. Like so many other kinds of animal performance, making bears “dance” has a long history stretching back to ancient times. Today the practice takes place mostly in countries of the Indian subcontinent, including India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh. Almost invariably the bears are exploited by very poor people who have few economic options, so initiatives to save the dancing bears must encompass programs to improve the prospects of their human owners.

Sloth bears in the wild

A SLOTH BEAR WITH CUBS

The bears used in this trade are mostly sloth bears, though some Asiatic black bears are also used. The sloth bear (Melursus ursinus) is a nocturnal forest dweller native to the subcontinent, where some 8,000 exist in the wild. Another 1,000 or so (estimates vary from 500 to 2,000) are held in captivity and used as performers. Sloth bears are one of the smaller bear species, about 30 inches tall at the shoulder and some 5 feet long. They weigh on average 200 to 250 pounds. They have a long shaggy black coat with whitish or yellowish hair on the snout and on the chest, where it forms a distinctive crescent. Their primary diet consists of ants and termites, supplemented by honey, fruit, grains, and small vertebrates. In the wild a sloth bear can live more than 20 years. In captivity, however, a dancing bear rarely lives past the age of 7 or 8.

An international problem

Until recently, bears were also used in Europe for this purpose. Bulgaria was the last country in Europe to use dancing bears. As in India, the occupation was a tradition of nomadic tribes, in this case the Roma. The last three dancing bears in Bulgaria were surrendered to a sanctuary. However, in spite of the European law against the trade, several incidents were reported in Spain.

A PERFORMING BEAR AT A MEDIEVAL MARKET IN LOS MORALES NEAR SEVILLA

“I was really upset about it. How much pain did that animal have to go through to learn such unnatural stunts?” asked a witness who unexpectedly came upon the performance of a bear dancing, clapping, and rolling over for spectators at a market near Seville. The question is astute. In fact, the behavior that audiences are encouraged to interpret as “dancing” is the product of aversive training. The Roma training method involved greasing the bears’ paws and having them stand on hot plates while music played; the bears hopped on the plates to avoid the burning pain, which became associated in their minds with the sound of the music. Eventually, just hearing the music caused the bears to repeat this “dancing” movement.

The dancing bears of India are primarily under the control of a nomadic people known as the Kalandar (or Qalandar), who come from a line of tribesmen who once entertained northern India’s Mughal emperors with trained-animal acts. Thus, working with animals for entertainment is the traditional livelihood of the tribe, whose people also have sidelines selling animal parts as medicines and good-luck charms.

The Kalandar of India

The Kalandar are recognized by the Indian government as an economically deprived tribe, although efforts to help them have been few. Investigators from international animal-welfare organizations are working with them and are helping them obtain better economic conditions. Programs have been established by cooperating national and international organizations—such as the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI), Wildlife SOS, World Animal Protection, and International Animal Rescue—that are aimed at helping the bears and helping the Kalandar. They seek to persuade the people that a livelihood that uses animals for entertainment is not sustainable. For example, the acquisition of a bear is a source of pride and prestige, but bears are expensive and the mortality rate is high, especially in the first three years of a bear’s life.

THE SAD ‘LIFE’ OF A DANCING BEAR

The bears are poached from the wild as cubs, an act that often necessitates killing the mother first. Some cubs, traumatized, die of shock. Others succumb to neglect or dehydration. Survivors are sold to trainers, who use sticks and physical threats to teach the orphaned cubs to stand, move on their hind legs, and perform other tricks. The cubs’ teeth are often knocked out or broken for the safety of humans; their nails are clipped short or removed (both of which are painful to bears); and a hot poker or piece of metal is run through the snout or lip to make a permanent hole through which a rope is anchored to control the bear. All of this is done without anesthesia. The trainers make the bears move by pulling on the rope, which causes great pain, and beating the bears if they do not obey. The owners, being poor themselves, cannot feed the bears a nutritionally sound diet even if they want to, and many bears lose their fur or suffer from cataracts and go blind.

THE FACE OF EXPLOTAITION

Efforts to stop the exploitation of bears

Bear dancing was outlawed by the Indian government in 1972. The practice has continued, however, partly because the Kalandar had no alternative and also because, until the early 21st century, there was no place to put confiscated bears; enforcement was therefore somewhat pointless. Special licenses were granted to the Kalandar so they could continue, while a Bear sanctuary at Agra was created by the WSPA and Wildlife SOS.

Although it is difficult to abandon long-held cultural and economic practices, the Kalandar have been willing to do so, provided that they are given the help they need to make a new start. In exchange for the bears, the Kalandar are given job training and equipment for alternative occupations, such as welding and the manufacture of useful products such as soap and incense. Some run small stalls and shops.

The first group of some two dozen rescued bears went to the Agra sanctuary in 2003. Since then more than 350 bears have gone to that facility and two others—one in Bannerghatta, near Bangalore, and another in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh state. The sanctuaries are run by Wildlife SOS; other animal-welfare organizations contribute funding. The rescued bears are first quarantined and given medical care. Once they are healthy enough to undergo the surgery, the ropes are removed from their noses—which are usually badly infected and bleeding. The sanctuaries provide environmental stimulation as well, including dens and swimming pools in which to cool off.

Rescues and sanctuaries

The rescued bears are socialized to get along together in a more natural bearlike existence, but most of them cannot be released into the wild and must depend on human care. Having lived long in human company, they would not know how to survive on their own. However, a special case occurred in April 2007, when authorities in Monghyr district, Bihar state, confiscated a group of four-month-old orphaned bear cubs from poachers who were planning to sell them to Kalandar. The five cubs had already had their teeth removed, and their muzzles had been pierced in preparation for the insertion of ropes. Although they had lost their mothers and had not benefited from normal bear-mother training, the cubs were still young enough to have retained some natural instincts and thus were candidates for reintroduction into the wild.

HAPPY BEARS AT THE SANCTUARY IN AGRA

After providing the cubs with dental and veterinary care, officials undertook to give the bears lessons in being wild. They helped them climb trees, dig for termites, and make dens. Officials of the program—a cooperative effort of the WSPA, the WTI, and the Bihar Forest Department—reported in July that the cubs were regaining their natural instincts and engaging in normal sloth-bear behavior. It was expected that they would soon have no need for human-provided food and could be released into a forest range in a protected area among a wild population of sloth bears.

When dancing bears are saved from indentured servitude to regain their health and freedom, both the bears and their rescuers experience great relief. Said WTI program officer Arjun Nayer, “For us the happiest moment was cutting off the restrictive nose ropes and muzzles. The bears found themselves ‘free’ for the first time to be themselves, not performers, not jokers to be derided and give amusement to people, but just be bears.”

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Chained, Beaten, Whipped And Exploited Like Slaves: The Hidden Horrors Meted Out To India’s Temple Elephants!

Originally published in The Independent.

They are the country’s icon – but behind the dazzle of religious festivals, these giants of the wild are painfully abused in Kerala.

When Audrey Gaffney first read about Raju, an Elephant kept in chains with spikes embedded in his ankles, she couldn’t stop the tears pouring down her face. “In fact, I cried again and again: I found over the next few days I just couldn’t get this story out of my head, I couldn’t stop thinking about Raju,” she recalls.

“I couldn’t believe the cruelty of my race.”

The young Elephant had been snatched from his family, she explains – his mother either would have been killed or spent weeks searching and crying for him – and he was beaten into submission. Raju then spent the next 50 years forced by his handler to beg in the street, starved, frightened and suffering infected wounds to his flesh. By the time of his rescue, he had resorted to eating plastic and paper.

Going on to discover that Raju was just one of thousands of Elephants treated this way in India, Ms Gaffney, a single mother from Liverpool, was spurred into becoming an activist for the first time. In the four years since, she says, her life has changed beyond recognition as she dropped her wariness of social media and teamed up with other volunteers working to raise awareness of the horrors to which the temple Elephants of India are subjected.

Taken from their families in the wild, shackled, beaten, whipped and exploited like slaves, these Elephants – ironically India’s icons – are painted and dressed in colourful decorations, to be paraded in regular festivals and processions organised by religious temples.

They are the world’s forgotten Elephant victims of mankind. While the world has focused on the threat of extinction to Africa’s Elephants caused by the ivory poaching crisis and the cruelty of tourist Elephant rides in Thailand and Cambodia, the plight of their captive counterparts in India has remained largely hidden from public gaze.

Fed the wrong diets, Kerala’s Elephants suffer malnourishment (Action for Elephants UK)

Photographs and videos posted online have shown how, away from the glitz of the festivals, these sensitive, intelligent and naturally sociable creatures are tied to the spot by ropes or chains that eat into their skin and inflict agonising injuries to their legs; they are hit with metal rods or bull-hooks – sharp tools – and “trained” with punishments to hold their heads high.

When the six-month festival season begins in December, they are forced to walk for miles in searing heat on hot, stinging tar roads and ridden into processions noisy with crowds and fireworks – terrifying for a creature whose home is the forest. While still shackled in chains they are made to run races or carry people and are subjected to “painful and unnatural” “head-lifting” competitions.

Some Elephants are carted from one festival to another – in some cases hundreds of miles – and despite suffering sometimes infected wounds from the chains, are ridden in searing temperatures by people who apparently see no harm in what they do.

The southern coastal state of Kerala has the highest number of festival Elephants, about 500 out of 3,500-4,000 across the country. Action for Elephants UK (AfE) brands Kerala “ground zero for elephant torture” and has called their illegal treatment “the worst case of animal cruelty in the world”. The plight of the 150 captive elephants in neighbouring Tamil Nadu is feared to be just as BAD.

Footage posted by local group Kerala Suffering Elephants (KSE) reveals how an Elephant named Gurvayur Nandan was paraded at a festival until dawn, before being transported for eight hours standing on the back of a truck in the scorching sun for eight hours without rest to a separate event that ran until midnight.

Malnourished and deprived of medical care, captive individuals of the endangered species rarely survive this “unrelenting neglect and torture” for a natural lifespan. The mortality rate in Kerala is shocking: 58 have died in 27 months, and already in 2018, 12 have succumbed, according to KSE. In seven years, the death toll is 350. “There could be no more damning proof of the hellish conditions and treatment meted out to these Elephants,” says Maria Mossman, founder of AfE.

Elephants are shackled in heavy chains that wound the flesh (Action for Elephants UK

For all the abuse, injuries and mental torment, it’s not the pain or infections that usually kills them early, it’s “intestinal impactions”: a blocked colon caused by being fed the wrong diet and insufficient quantities of water. The condition means they die “a miserable and painful” early death.

Campaigners have had enough. Gathering outside the Indian High Commission in London, they staged a protest to draw the attention of the New Delhi government and the world at large to the animals’ plight. Wearing large Elephant masks and waving placards, they came from a variety of backgrounds; some had travelled hundreds of miles to be there.

What unites these women – and yes, the campaigners are nearly all women – is a shared abhorrence of the “abuse and torture”. They adamantly deny attempting to interfere with religious culture.

“Temple Elephants are not part of any tradition,” explains Ms Mossman.

Their use in temples and festivals is not part of Indian culture, nor do Hindu scriptures anywhere say that Elephants should be used in temple rituals. On the contrary, the barbaric treatment of these elephants goes completely against the core beliefs of Hinduism”

In fact, the cruelty behind Kerala’s rituals is thought to have begun about a century ago as India’s nouveaux riches started to buy Elephants to flaunt their wealth. Denise Dresner, a co-organiser of AfE, recalls the heart-wrenching moment that opened her eyes to the scale of the problem: “In 2013 I saw a video by Peta of Sunder the temple Elephant being beaten. This was something I’d never witnessed before.

“An Elephant was on its side on the ground, struggling to get up. His feet were shackled and he was being beaten violently by several men, over and over again. He kept struggling, unable to get away from the blows raining down on him. I learned later he had been kept in a dark shed and beaten incessantly for seven years.

“That moment of seeing him being beaten and tortured was seared into my brain and heart. It’s an image that will never leave me, one that shows the extremes of human violence and brutality towards other living beings. The unspeakable cruelty perpetrated on these majestic, sentient and highly intelligent creatures must end.”

For Maria Harper, another protester, it’s the duration of the suffering that is worst. “What upset me most was when I realised the length of time the temple and festival Elephants suffer,” she says.

“They can endure cruelty and abuse for more than 50 years – if they are unfortunate enough to survive that long. It’s a life sentence”

Seeing the photos and hearing the accounts is harrowing. But Ms Mossman says it’s vital if their welfare is to improve. “The world needs to know how handlers use banned weapons and restrain them with heavy shackles, often tightened so severely that they cut through the flesh, causing raw bleeding wounds that are seldom treated. “They are often forced to stand in the same position 24/7, in their own urine and excrement, suffering from foot rot. They are beaten and tortured time and again.”

Some mahouts think nothing of whipping an Elephant to make it bend to his will, such as climbing into a truck. But the abuse doesn’t end there.

Most of Kerala’s captive Elephants are bulls. When they enter their annual musth – mating season – their testosterone levels and energy surge, so the mahouts tighten their shackles further until the creatures are unable to move. In addition, food and water are restricted to weaken them.

But then comes the cruellest torture yet. Several men, often drunken, beat the chained Elephant for up to 72 hours relentlessly. The practice is based on a superstitious belief that the Elephants may have forgotten their commands during their musth, and is designed to break the Elephant’s spirit, “reminding him that his masters are in control”.

All bull Elephants in Kerala undergo this horror every year.

These practices are banned by the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act 1960 and the Wildlife Protection Act 1972, but campaigners point out that the laws are routinely ignored.

Elephants are paraded with no ownership papers or parade certificates, or with fake fitness certificates, breaking the Wildlife Protection Act 1972, which says they cannot be exploited for profit, AfE says. Recent laws banning the use of disabled, sick or pregnant elephants in festivals are also ignored.

“The plight of these Elephants is arguably the worst case of animal abuse in the world. The suffering that temple Elephants endure is unimaginable”

“India has very good laws, but they are ignored daily and the abusers go unpunished,” says Ms Mossman. “Not only are Elephants intelligent and sentient beings, they are an endangered species. It is the duty not only of India to enforce the laws to protect them, but of the world to hear their cries of suffering and respond to end the brutality against them.”

She and KSE agree that making profits and keeping the status quo are at the root of the problem. “These sentient animals are seen only as commodities, earning huge sums of money for their owners and the temples,” says Ms Mossman. “Exploited under the veneer of culture and religion, they are big business. Everyone, from the chief minister downwards, has a stake.”

The 3,000 temples that rent out Elephants to festival organisers are run by four devaswom (socio-religious trusts), appointed by the state government, and each temple earns many millions of rupees from festivals.

Any Elephant that makes it beyond 60 is purposely neglected and abused – treated as a disposable item – so the owners can make hefty insurance claims, according to AfE.

Sangita Iyer, who was born and raised in Kerala and made an award-winning 2016 film, Gods in Shackles, revealing what goes on behind the scenes at the festivals, is convinced greed is to blame.

“Elephants are allowed to die so the owners can receive the pay-outs. There’s a whole insurance industry surrounding this, in which the owners and brokers make the most profit.”

A dead tusker that suffered intestinal blockages is covered with a cloth. Most captive elephants die young after years of pain (Action for Elephants UK)

According to India’s Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre, which in 2014 petitioned the Supreme Court of India to order better conditions for the animals, another factor is young men showing off. “Today’s mahouts are in it for the glamour and the thrill. Unlike the mahouts of the old, who learnt the ways of handling the Elephants over time, these guys know only oppression and violence,” one rescuer says.

Nor does Ms Iyer particularly blame festival-goers. “Most people are unaware of the crushing burden these Elephants carry, in the literal sense, on their backs, and in their hearts and souls. Most people don’t realise the brutality that these sentient beings undergo to entertain them. They are so hypnotised by the majestic, ornate Elephants and lost in their own selfish world that they don’t even look at the raw bleeding ankles.”

However bad the suffering of the individuals, the abuse has wider repercussions. KSE warns it could even lead to the extinction of Indian Elephants.

“As each of these Elephants die from overwork, intestinal impactions etc, the surviving ones are going to be overworked even more. It’s a vicious cycle and will probably end only when there are no Elephants left”

Taking young Elephants from the wild has a serious impact on wild Elephant populations in India and elsewhere, activists fear. People’s lives, too, are being put at risk. Some elephants, driven frantic by their suffering, break free and run amok. Behind media reports of people being killed by a rampaging Elephant there almost always lies a story of a brutalised animal.

There have also been 300 incidents of Elephants running amok in the first three months of this year. Earlier this month there were unconfirmed reports of Elephants running amok at festivals in Ernakulam and Kollam districts. Unofficial counts put it at 20 incidents in one week.

Action for Elephants is warning prime minister Narendra Modi these rituals are not just harming the country’s most iconic wildlife, but also India’s multi-million-pound tourism industry and reputation. “We hope tourists and visitors to India will make ethical choices and will shun all forms of Elephant tourism that use elephants in any unnatural way, whether in festivals or for trekking or rides or any other purpose,” a statement by the group says.

“In this day and age, when we have gained so much knowledge about the intelligence, emotional capacity, and social bonds of these majestic creatures, and when we know how endangered they are, we believe that all countries have a duty to protect them, treat them humanely, and give them sanctuary.”

India is positioned to take a global lead in ethical wildlife tourism, the letter says.

As long as the current system of cruelty is allowed to continue, the more it will negatively impact India’s tourism and tarnish India’s reputation and image in the world

Signatories include primatologist Jane Goodall, TV star Michael Palin, author Jilly Cooper, TV presenter Anneka Svenska and radio presenter Nicky Campbell, as well as MP Zac Goldsmith.

Filmmaker Ms Iyer believes educating the public is the only way to achieve change. “Ignorance and arrogance make for a bad potion, and unless and until we are able to create attitude shifts in the public eye, there’s little hope for these sentient beings.

“There is no point in fighting the owners or brokers. Enlightening the people is the only way to stop the audience from participating in festivals that use live Elephants and reduce demand for such cultural festivals. When the demand dies down, the Elephants will be ultimately phased out.”

The Indian High Commission in London did not respond to a request by The Independent to comment and refused to send anybody to open the door when visited in person.

There are some glimmers of hope, however. Occasionally, news of progress made by welfare workers on the ground emerges, and an elephant rescue can become a stand-out memory for followers. The film that startled Ms Gaffney was called Raju the Elephant Cried on the Day he was Released from Chains. His rescue made headlines.

Ms Dresner says she followed each step in a protracted legal case to free Sunder with her heart in her throat. “Finally, when he was freed, the joy was overwhelming. Like so many others, I then followed his progress in his new home at Bannerghatta Biological Park, crying (happily) with every bit of good news: his healing leg, his first swim in the pond, his making new friends, his putting weight on his skeletal frame.”

Fellow demonstrator Joanne Smith agrees. “The terrible delays with the court case were so hard to take but the day Sunder was given his freedom was thrilling,” she recalls. “It proved to me that we can make a difference with hard work and determination.”

In the past two years, three temples have done away with renting Elephants for festivals. One used mechanical stand-in; another used an 8ft dummy made of plaster of Paris and bamboo. Organisers say they may even offer the model to neighbouring temples for their own festivals, allowing the idea to catch on.

The London protest and letter also have the support of Absolutely Fabulous star Joanna Lumley, whose message was: “One of the most influential Indians of all time, Mahatma Gandhi, said: ‘The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.’

“India! Listen to his words and implement them. The world supports your laws against cruelties to temple Elephants, but only you can ensure that they are enforced.”

And that, say campaigners, really would be worth a celebration.

Gods In Shackles

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