Sickly dancing bears leave Pakistan for new life in Jordan

Kathy Gannon

ISLAMABAD (AP) — A pair of sick and badly neglected dancing Himalayan brown bears left Islamabad’s notorious zoo on Wednesday for a sanctuary in Jordan, closing down a zoo that once housed 960 animals.

The Marghazar Zoo’s horrific conditions gained international notoriety when Kaavan, dubbed “the world’s loneliest elephant”, grabbed headlines and the attention of iconic American entertainer Cher. Kaavan was transferred to his new home in Cambodia last month.

The Islamabad High Court ordered the zoo closed earlier this year because of the outrageous conditions there, blamed on systemic negligence.

The last of the zoo’s animals, Himalayan brown bears Suzie and Bubaloo, left for Jordan, said Dr Amir Khalil. He is the veterinarian with Four Paws International, a global animal welfare group, who has been caring for the zoo’s badly treated animals. Khalil spent months nursing Kaavan, putting him on a diet and soothing his tortured spirit until he could travel to Cambodia.

The bears, trained from an early age to entertain, are making their way to Jordan with the assistance of the Princess Alia Foundation, headed by the eldest daughter of Jordan’s late King Hussein. The 17-year-old bears will live in a sanctuary 1,100 metres above sea level. That means they will have the snowy, cold conditions more typical of their natural habitat — something they have missed in Pakistan’s capital, said Khalil.

The bears should be preparing for hibernation in December, but instead are living in cramped quarters, separated from each other and in poor health.

“They are exhibiting stereotypical behaviour” for animals who have suffered years of mistreatment, said Khalil, who spent weeks training Suzie to enter the cage that will carry her to Jordan. Bubaloo has been less inclined to get into the cage and will be sedated for the trip.

A sick brown bear in its enclosure in the Marghazar Zoo, Islamabad, Pakistan. PHOTOS: AP
ABOVE & BELOW: Pakistani wildlife workers move a crate to be used for transporting a sick brown bear at the Marghazar Zoo; and the main gate of the Marghazar Zoo

Both Suzie and Bubaloo have a number of health issues, said Khalil in an interview on Wednesday. Suzie is malnourished. Her teeth were removed so she did not attack her trainer or tourists, making it difficult for her to eat.

Khalil has her food cut up and put her on a diet of chicken and fish to give her nourishment. Bubaloo has an abscessed tooth that is making him aggressive and ornery, said Khalil, which is unusual for Himalayan brown bears who “have a really wonderful nature”.

But they have been living in a small enclosure, separated without proper medical attention or care.

Dancing bears are common in Pakistan and in some European countries, according to Khalil.

The method of training is painful and bears, who have poor hearing, are not inclined to music.

A bear cub is trained to dance by being made to stand on a hot plate with his paws protected only by Vaseline. When they step on the hot plate they move their feet up and down and at the same time music is played. They eventually come to associate music with moving their feet up and down.

“Sadly this continues till this day not just in Pakistan,” said Khalil, noting that sometimes they are made to fight each other or are also used to train fighting dogs.

With the departure on Wednesday of Suzie and Bubaloo, the Islamabad zoo will be closed, said Khalil, who first visited the animal habitat in 2016. The conditions were poor and a number of recommendations were made but they were ignored, he said.

According to its records, the zoo once contained 960 animals but 500 disappeared.

“No one knows where those 500 animals disappeared to,” said Khalil, who said the remainder were in deeply neglected condition. Alternative care has been found for the animals, some in Pakistan and some outside.

Pakistan’s Wildlife Foundation has been working with Khalil and the government is investing millions of dollars to build a world-class sanctuary in place of the zoo that will help rescue animals. Khalil is bringing two Wildlife Foundation workers to Jordan to learn the skills of running a sanctuary.

“At this time, it is important to speak about humanity and when you speak about humanity it is not just about humans. A kind person should be kind to humans and to animals,” Khalil said.