Prior to 2007, before we freed these wonderful bears from their chains, they had to dance to earn the living for their Roma owners.
When 'not working' they were kept chained in the backyard of their owner's house. They lived in constant distress, swinging their heads from side to side and continually pawing the ground. For many years they were fed sugar, alcohol and sweet drinks. Along with constant gnawing at the chains, their teeth were left broken and rotten.
The family who kept them were bear owners for several generations. The great grandfather of the family, was 12 years old when he began training them for the entertainment of tourists. During a conversation with the family, his relatives lifted up a little boy and put him next to the bear. They claimed it showed how friendly and harmless the bear is. But, the truth of their nature was even crueller than what met the eye.
Svetla and Mima were taken from zoos as cubs and trained by being forced to stand on hot metal plates while music played. This painful conditioning led to whenever the bears hear the music they remember the pain – and start to dance. Several times a year they would be held down and have their claws cut (this is suggested to be as painful as slicing off a human's fingers).
Although there were attempts to put an end to this cruelty in 1993, sadly, as Bulgaria had nowhere for the authorities to keep the bears and law was not strictly enforced, Roma families were allowed to still keep the bears, under license, until a sanctuary was found for them. This meant that these bears endured suffering for much longer. It was only in 1998, that the training and dancing of bears was outlawed in Bulgaria.
The Bulgarian government approached FOUR PAWS and together with FONDATION BRIGITTE BARDOT, a suitable sanctuary for mistreated bears was built – a 'heaven' called BEAR SANCTUARY Belitsa opened in 2000, up in the beautiful mountains.
However, the true end to the cruel tradition of dancing bears in Bulgaria was in 2007, when the last three remaining dancing bears (Svetla, Mima and another bear, Mischo) from their owners in the eastern village of Getsovo, about 400 km (250 miles) east Sofia, Bulgaria.
Since then, Bulgarian law banned all private keeping of bears. No bears in Bulgaria will ever be forced into this cruelty again.
Life without chains
Svetla, born in 1990, is a large and beautiful bear in her prime, with short and shiny fur. Soon after her arrival at the sanctuary, she shared the enclosure with bears Misho and Mima. Nowadays, she lives with other bears and her best mate seems to be bear Stefan.
These recent days she prefers to lie down during the hot and sunny weather. Svetla has a favorite place for relaxation and always could be spotted there on the same place. The place is hidden very well, deep in the forester, far from visitors. Only the visitors who are very observational could see her during the guiding tour.
Mima, born in 1997, is known for being very active and could be spotted easily during the whole day. And of course, during summer, like other bears at BEAR SANCTUARY Belitsa, she prefers an afternoon nap, hidden well in the bushes, in the shadow.
Recently, a regular daily routine has developed, when the sun is not so hot around 4 to 5 pm, together with her mate Monti, you'll always see them foraging for food, walking around in the upper side of their enclosure, near to the info center. Apart from this time, most of their days are spent in another part of their enclosure.