Bulgaria's dancing bears retire

On the muddy edge of Bulgaria's capital, where the concrete crumbles gradually into goat-trodden fields, Gosho, an 800-pound brown bear, paces four steps forward, five steps back.

His behavior is typical of an animal who has spent most of his life on a 10-foot chain, attached by a steel ring through the fleshy part of his sensitive, dog-like nose.

But today, he seems to sense a change in the air.

The Roma (Gypsy) camp that has been his home is packed and loaded onto two cars. Gosho's owner, Maria Angelova, trembles as she signs a contract that will send him into comfortable retirement at a specially built bear park. "I'm going to miss Gosho," she wails.

"We are not buying the animal," says a lawyer representing Vier Pfoten (Four Paws), a Vienna-based animal-rights group. "This agreement is in accordance with the international wildlife convention. You are agreeing not to capture wild animals, not to keep them, and not to make them dance."

To acquire Gosho and a younger bear, Bobi, Four Paws is paying about $4,500 each - four years' salary for the average Bulgarian.

A popular form of entertainment across Europe in centuries past, dancing bears are found only in a few Eastern nations today. Bulgaria has just 10 bears officially registered and still dancing, along with a handful of "illegals." Four Paws aims to make them a thing of the past.

Animal rights is a new concept here and across the former communist world, but one that is gradually catching on, thanks in part to well-publicized projects like the bear park.

Yet the willingness of Western animal lovers to give money to Four Paws is not lost on Bulgarians. And in a land where 70 percent of the population lives in or near poverty, such funding priorities can be a source of cynicism about Western values.

"In the West, when you say animal protection, people are very excited and interested," says Christoph Eberharter, a biologist from Austria and project assistant for Four Paws. "They are happy people, lucky and rich. In Bulgaria, people are so poor they say 'We want to take care of our own house first.' "

Western governments and private organizations spent more than $20 million on projects designed to build civil society in Bulgaria in 2000.

But few have achieved the visibility of the $250,000 bear park, which opened in November near the village of Belitsa, in southwest Bulgaria. Already, there are plans for expansion.

The park has a visitor center and six bears, including the new arrivals. Each bear's space is surrounded by two fences and includes a small swimming pool and trees. Their food - bread, honey, fish, and a variety of fruits and vegetables - costs $150 to $200 per bear, per month. The average monthly salary here is $100.

All of the food is purchased locally, and two full-time local employees maintain the park, feeding the bears and giving tours - a significant source of income for this poor, isolated, and predominantly Muslim region.

In the otherwise forgotten town, those who directly benefit are grateful. But others can't ignore the fact that the bears appear to live better than they do.

"We envy them," says Aishe Kuteva bluntly. She has worked hard for 25 years, she says, yet has nothing to leave to her children. "They have their food and security and don't have to worry," she says of the bears.

Four Paws plans its projects for maximum impact on the local economy. But its officials say the major gains to society, like democracy itself, don't have a market value.

"A bear is not a Mercedes or a McDonald's," says Amir Khalil, the European Regional Manager for Four Paws. "Ghandi said the measure of a country's civilization is how it treats its animals."

And more and more Bulgarians are starting to change their attitudes toward dancing bears. Mr. Eberharter says a bearkeeper recently told him he wanted to sell because he was tired of people scolding him for being cruel and saying his bear looked unhealthy and miserable.

"Before we built the center, people thought the bears danced because it was fun," says Eberharter. "Now, after our work, there is a change in the people on the street. [But] we still have a long way to fix this problem."

At the bear park, Gosho and Bobi arrive, still in chains, at their new enclosures.

Dr. Khalil tranquilizes Gosho with pink-tipped darts. Then assistants use wire cutters to remove Gosho's chains and nose ring.

Angel Angelov, Mrs. Angelova's husband, looks distraught as he sits and watches. He says he might use the money from the bear's purchase to buy a tractor and take up farming, but he isn't sure.

The contract the Angelovs signed forbids them only from making bears dance.

Since then, they have been reported busking in central Sofia with a monkey.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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