Horrors of a bear dance

The last California grizzly was killed in the early 20s and by the 50s the bear featured on the state flag representing the state where it no longer existed. The model for the flag is said to be a bear called Monarch, which was owned by William Randolph Hearst and was kept in captivity in Golden Gate Park for twenty years. The stuffed remains of Monarch are now housed in the California Academy of Sciences.

Bret Harte’s poem about the grizzly

This combined reverence and fear humans feel toward a bear is captured in a poem by Californian writer and journalist, Bret Harte. In his poem, “The Grizzly“, Harte writes:

Coward,–of heroic size,
In whose lazy muscles lies
Strength we fear and yet despise;

Monarch at the California Academy of Sciences

The tragic end of the grizzly in California was inevitable. Misplaced fear of the unknown leads to annihilation. And, like others, I find it easier to disregard something that is not familiar. But once I know a bit about it, I can no longer ignore it. I also find that reflecting on the interaction of humans and other living beings helps me understand life. That is why I’ve chosen to write about bears as they bridge two of the many places I call home: California and Chakwal, located on the Potohar plateau famous for the Himalayan Salt Range.

Are there bears in Chakwal?

In the late 60s, when I am about five or six, Chakwal is a small town surrounded by a vaste landscape of low-lying hills. On the edge of the town is my grandfather’s house -a three story building with so many people. My days are filled with home-schooling and games of make-believe with my sisters and cousins. And when I’m tired, I sit on the window sill in of one of the rooms on the third floor and dream of the tiny trees on the hills on the horizon. I imagine “every bear that ever there was, is gathered there for certain because, today’s the day that teddy bears have their picnic“.

A picnic in Kallarkahar

I imagine the animals I will see when we go for a picnic to the lake of Kallarkahar, which I cannot see from this window. Picnics are our main outing. We scramble over rocky hills and cool ourselves in the loquat orchards. We hear peacocks shouting loud and clear, announcing our arrival.

Animals on the Potohar Plateau

As much as I think I will get to see animals on these trips, we never do. Maybe there are too many of us for the animals to come close. I wonder if there are bears hiding behind boulders. I don’t know at the time, that bears do not live here. These hills are the home of the urial, a goat with big horns. Here, roam fox, jackal, wolves, and pangolins. And the birds, which are often hunted, are the grey francolin and the wood pigeon. No large bears here!

Cousins and sisters of the author
Anniqua with her sisters and cousins

A forgotten memory of a bear

Recently, I uncovered a memory of that time in Chakwal. Something I witnessed. The memory is hazy, so I don’t know what I thought about it at that time. If feelings make us remember, the fact that I had to remind myself indicates it didn’t make an impression on me back then. Now, I am willing myself to think I was horrified.

Breakfast time

It’s a cold morning in my grandfather’s home. I’m in the dining room. The table is huge, large enough for the extended family to sit around and enjoy three meals of the day together. I’m finishing up on a late breakfast, wiping the last of plum jam and freshly whipped cream with the last piece of my paratha- an unleavened flaky flat bread oozing desi ghee. I’m cleaning my plate with it, like all good Muslims, “sweeping Makkah and Medina” the saying goes. Not letting any of it waste, too many poor people in the world not to be thankful for all we have.

A pellet drumbeat

As I wipe my plate clean and wait for someone to pass me a glass of milk, a soft drumbeat weaves its way into the dining room. I crawl off the chair that, like the table, is made for adults. I rush into the verandah, following the drum beat. At the front of the house, a crowd of cousins and neighbors have gathered around that sound. Despite height of the verandah, I can’t see what’s going on.

I jump over two stairs at a time to push past the crowd. I tug at my my taller cousins to let me pass. At the center stands a bear on its hind legs with a muzzle over its mouth. A rope is tied to a ring in its nose and at the end of the rope is the bear trainer. He holds up a small pellet drum which is making the sound that enticed me here. This is how the bear trainer makes money. It’s how he feeds his family.

Today, that scene sickens me.

A bear sanctuary 

Decades pass, and I return to Chakwal as an adult. We’re planning to spend more time there when we retire. We realize we have neighbors that I had dreamed about as a child.

An hour’s drive from my grandfather’s home, at the Balkasar Bear Sanctuary stretches over 17 acres designated for over forty bears who have been rescued from bear baiting and dancing. They will get to live the last years of their lives being cared for by humans attempting to compensate for the torture they had to endure.

Balkasar Bear Sanctuary
A rescued Asiatic black bear at Balkasar Bears Sanctuary [Image by Fakhar-i-Abbas
A rescued Asiatic black bear at Balkasar Bear Sanctuary – Image by Fakhar-i-Abbas

Create Cultural Memories through Literature and Art

In Tanczace niedzwiedzie/ Dancing Bears: True Stories of People Nostalgic for Life Under Tyranny, Witold Szablowski describes how bears were captured and trained to dance in Bulgaria. Once they are freed, however, he explains how they are unable to adjust to freedom. Humans, Szablowski argues demonstrate similar behavior once they have been trained to lived in a restrictive environment.

Szabloski explains how Bulgarian Roma trained bears to dance. He tells of the trauma of the training. It included getting the bears addicted to alcohol, pulling out their teeth, and training them to dance. These bears, kept in captivity, could no longer remember how to hibernate, copulate, or hunt for themselves. Even when they are freed from their captors, the bears in the Dancing Bears Park of Belitsa, south of Sofia, Bulgaria find it impossible to adjust to freedom.

Like the bears in the Balkassar sanctuary, these bears can no longer return to the wild but are cared for to help them adjust in these sanctuaries.


  1. Loved the way it was written very interesting and informative to people who don’t know of these practices of the past which are now a crime .So glad that humans are evolving to be more compassionate towards all living things.

  2. Hello Anniqua, I really loved that post. It was lovely to see a photograph of you and your cousins as children.
    I feel heartsick for those bears, it’s so difficult to come to terms with such thoughtless cruelty, even with the knowledge that the trainers family have to eat.
    Many thanks from Liza

    • Thank you for reading it. The cruelty is heartbreaking, but I’m thankful for those who work at these sanctuaries and the awareness they bring to such trauma.

    • The same justification is used for the continuation of bull-fighting here – people need the jobs to feed their families. I think the government should invest more money into creating jobs that don’t depend of being cruel to other living beings. The world does appear to be moving in that direction. *fingers crossed

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