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Stefan and Stefka Albin Biblom Jorn Spolander Brigitte Bardot

-by Albin Biblom and Jörn Spolander

 Brigitte Bardot is angry. 

"The people who treat bears in this way should be tried at the International Court of Justice in the same way as Saddam Hussein and Milosevic! They have no human dignity whatsoever!"  She is talking about Rodari, a group of Romanies who make their living by putting on shows involving dancing bears – bears in chains, with nose rings, that move to music in town squares and streets. The tradition dates back to India in the 10th century. Nowadays, there are virtually no dancing bears left in Europe, apart from twenty or so in Bulgaria. It is these bears that Brigitte Bardot and her foundation have decided to save. In collaboration with the Austrian organisation, Vier Pfoten, they have constructed a large reserve in the deserted Rila mountains, 80 kilometres south of the Bulgarian capital, Sofia, where the bears will be able to spend the rest of their lives without chains.


The bear reserve is just outside Belitsa, a small town where time has stood still since the plastic factory and uranium mine were closed 15 years ago, following the fall of Communism. To date, the two animal rights organisations have invested EUR 2 million in the reserve. This is more than twice as much as the annual budget the mayor, Hasan Ilan, has at his disposal to cover the most urgent needs of his municipality, where unemployment is as high as 80 per cent. When Hasan Ilan heard about the animal rights organisations' plans to give each bear food worth more than an average monthly salary, his first comment was that he would rather be a bear than a citizen of Bulgaria! 

However, the Vier Pfoten project manager, Amir Khalil, convinced him that the park would attract tourists to the region. Since then, the mayor has been supporting the project and has helped to find a suitable piece of land. "People like Brigitte Bardot have plenty of money and they have decided to look after animals and not people. So why shouldn't they be allowed to do this?" he says, straightening a small EU flag on his desk. 

Vasil Danev, the chairman of the Romany interest organisation, the FORO, is fighting to ensure that the bear tamers who are still left in Bulgaria are offered some alternative form of work and social security when their bears are taken away from them. 

"Fifteen years ago, people here enjoyed a fair degree of equality. Now, however, the Romanies are finding themselves further and further down the social ladder. Many of them are forced to look for food in dustbins and their opportunities to study and make a career are limited. So I think we should concentrate on looking after them. After that, we can take care of the bears," he says. 


Like most bear tamers, Georgi Mirchev Marinov and his brother Stefan Dimov Ivanov worked at an agricultural co-operative during the Communist era. "Democracy brought with it unemployment and petty criminals and the co-operative fell apart. Prior to that, people had food on the table," says Georgi, who became an ursar, bear tamer, when he lost his previous job. The tradition has been handed down from father to son. Both Georgi and Stefan returned to the profession they had learned as children when the co-operative was closed. Stefan's two bears, Stefka and Violetta, are standing outside the house, each chained to a separate tree. He bought Stefka from a nature reserve when she was two months old. "She was like a daughter to us, but, when she was two, I put her in chains and trained her for the job. The dancing bears are now going to disappear, because Bulgaria doesn't want to look bad to tourists from the west." He bought Violetta for his son Dimo. However, Dimo did not feel that the occupation of bear tamer had any future so he left her with his father and went to Italy. The contract has now been signed with the animal rights organisations and a week from now the bears will be collected. 


The question of how the bear tamers should be treated is causing a split between the two animal rights organisations. "It isn't our responsibility to help these people. Everyone is responsible for his or her own life and there are plenty of things they can do rather than ill-treating animals," says Brigitte Bardot. Vier Pfoten, on the other hand, feels that the best solution for everyone involved would be to give the bear tamers some form of economic compensation. "With the income from the bears, they keep a large family, so it's impossible for us simply to take their bears. We have therefore decided to compensate them economically to give them the chance to start something new," explains Tsvetelina Ivanova, who runs Vier Pfoten's office in Bulgaria. 

When the time came for Stefka and Violetta to be collected, it was snowing. Stefan stood alone in the yard with the bears, looked weighed down by events. Vier Pfoten's and Bardot's representatives arrived. Curious villagers and journalists had gathered to watch the chairman of Vier Pfoten, Amir Khalil, shoot a tranquillising dart into Violetta who quickly fell asleep. Amir Khalil removed her nose ring and showed it in his accustomed manner to the press cameras. When he raised the tranquilliser gun and pointed it at Stefka, Stefan lifted his hand to stop him and led the bear into the cage himself. 

Stefan's bears have been freed and will be taken to Belitsa. He is going to miss them, especially Stefka, but he is pleased that they are going to have a good life. 

With the money he receives for Stefka, 4,000 leva (approximately GBP 1,500), he is planning to travel to his son Dimo in Italy, where he hopes the chances of finding a job are better than they are in Bulgaria. "Dimo says that you can get a job picking strawberries and oranges there and that you can do the work without any papers." 


The opening of the bear park is approaching. Belitsa comes to life for a few days. Broken street lamps are repaired and the flaking inscription on the front of the town hall is re-painted. In the square, two elderly men stand looking into the sky above the towering Rila mountains to the north west. Rumour has it that Brigitte Bardot will probably be arriving by helicopter, as a car journey along the bumpy roads from Sofia would be too uncomfortable. In the bear park, behind the police cordons, there is a cocktail party for specially-invited guests. The Bulgarian Prime Minister, Simeon II, holds a speech. He says that the bear park shows just how well Bulgaria is taking care of its animals and that Belitsa has now been put on the map of Europe. 


As it happens, Brigitte Bardot never appears, not even in a helicopter. Instead, large photographs of her when she was young and scantily clothed are projected onto a screen. The guests stop talking. Via the telephone from her home in Saint Tropez, her voice echoes across the mountains. "This is the beautiful realisation of a dream. Finally, the bears have regained the freedom they should never have lost." 


The bears walk about behind the high fencing, above the cocktail marquee. Many of them simply sway backwards and forwards monotonously over a small, well-trodden area, even though artificial hills and large, verdant areas of forest have been created for them. They will stay here until they die. 


© 2004 Albin Biblom and Jörn Spolander 

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