Dancing in Chains

HIP/Art Resource
‘Dancing Bear’; illustration by C. Knight, 1875

The Dancing Bears Park is Europe’s largest sanctuary for bears rescued from captivity. Located in Belitsa, in the Rila Mountains of southwest Bulgaria, it is a major tourist site. The park is managed by Four Paws, an international animal welfare organization that has been liberating circus and performing bears in central and southeastern Europe since the 1990s, when the end of communism in this part of the world gave rise to hopes that bears might enjoy their freedom too.

For many decades, if not centuries, young bears had been taken from their mothers in the wild, domesticated by their keepers, and trained to dance by attaching chains to rings driven through their noses and forcing them to step on red-hot sheets of metal. Their owners also beat them and knocked out their teeth. Dancing bears were a popular form of entertainment in villages and towns. They not only danced but performed tricks, imitated celebrities, and even gave back massages, for which their claws were tightly trimmed.

But more damaging in the long term was the way the bears were made to follow human customs, living with their keepers on a diet of white bread and alcohol and working all year round, even in the winter, when they would normally hibernate. The bears lost their natural instincts. They forgot how to hibernate, how to hunt for food, how to attract a mate, even how to move freely. As Four Paws would discover, it was no easy task to teach freedom to animals that had never been free.

In Dancing Bears: True Stories of People Nostalgic for Life Under Tyranny, the award-winning Polish journalist Witold Szabłowski compares the liberation of the Belitsa bears to the emancipation of Europe’s citizens from Communist totalitarianism. In the introduction he describes how he first learned about the park at Belitsa (“an unusual ‘freedom research lab’”) from Krasimir Krumov, a Bulgarian journalist he met in Warsaw:

As I listened to Krumov, it occurred to me that I was living in a similar research lab. Ever since the transition from socialism to democracy began in Poland in 1989, our lives have been a kind of freedom research project—a never-ending course in what freedom is, how to make use of it, and what sort of price is paid for it. We have had to learn how free people take care of themselves, of their families, of their futures. How they eat, sleep, make love—because under socialism the state was always poking its nose into its citizens’ plates, beds, and private lives.

Szabłowski writes in a simple, vivid style, translated well from Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. His allegory is humorous, ironic, frequently absurd, and sometimes dark, but always full of understanding and compassion for its subjects, both human and animal.

In ten short chapters in the first…

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