Three months ago, India's mangy but ubiquitous performing bears were forced into retirement by an animal-rights conscious government armed with a rarely enforced wildlife protection statute. The intention: to improve the bears' undeniably terrible lot. The result, however, has been even worse. Ten New Delhi bears have been confiscated from owners and confined to dank animal shelters. Some have stopped eating because of homesickness and one bear has passed away.
Fearing similar fates for their animals, scores of bear owners in the New Delhi area are scrupulously avoiding the crowds they used to entertain. Raju and Sheru spend most of their days lying in a dusty, shaggy heap tied to a post outside their owner's home. Every so often, a child is sent out to pour water on them to help with the heat. "These bears are very expensive to keep and now, instead of earning for us, they have become a burden," complains Abdul, a bear trainer.
The government's reasoning is that a bear should live free in a forest, not in a crowded city-and certainly not with its teeth removed, subsisting on bread and milk and fettered by a painful noose through its nose. They shouldn't behave like Girdhari Lal, a bear who knows all the standard stunts. How does a movie heroine walk? The bear stands on his hind legs and sways seductively. A hero? The bear swaggers. Show us how to smoke a cigarette? The beast puffs on a bamboo stick. And are you going to claw these nice people watching you? He shakes his head. "These animal rights people don't understand," says Girdhari Lal's owner, Husain Ali. "We love our animals and care for them like our own children."
Kalandars, the community that owns the bears and other performing animals, were originally a nomadic people in Northern India. Now urbanized in India's towns and cities, they live in squalor. Their children are indeed treated like the bears: they are malnourished, filthy and illiterate. But the bears have become these people's livelihood and their pets: they like to be cuddled and miss their human families when separated. One possible compromise is to let existing performers remain with their owners, as long as they guarantee proper care, but prevent any new bears, owls, monkeys and snakes from being smuggled out of the wild and turned into entertainers. With the government shutdown, however, and no alternative employment offered, both children and bears will suffer. "You don't know who to feel worse about," says animal activist Bahar Dutt. "The animals or their owners."