Dancing Bears Weren’t Having Fun

The Dancing Bear by William Frederick Witherington. (1822)

People send me all sorts of wildlife related videos. Most recent was a series of bears dealing with an itch by rubbing parts of their body against a tree.

When people watch a YouTube video, complete with music and voice over,  of a bear “dancing”,  I get it that some people think this is “cool” or amusing. But I’m not getting those pleasant vibes.

It may seem harmless when accompanied only by music, but human voice over or singing changes the tone and intent of the message; it suggests human control and makes a  mockery of the bears actions, whether it’s scratching an itch, getting at a tick or marking it’s presence. No, the bear is not human, and no, it is not dancing!

The common explanation for this kind of trivialization of wild animals, the “entertainment” and education element that people employ while trying to justify  what they’ve just done, is that humans appreciate bears more because they can dance – just like we do, right?

The extension is that subsequently these people have greater understanding of wild animals and this then translates into stronger feelings that they should be protected. In other words, the street level superficial justification for trivializing wildlife is that the constant flow of events exploiting wildlife, whether it be swimming with dolphins, petting snakes, or watching bears dance to the Rolling Stones, translates in these people into engagement in some form of wildlife conservation.

The outcome is supposed to be that people then send money for conservation efforts, lobby governments for protection, or participate favorably in regulatory processes that support wildlife and their habitat.

The reality is it happens to be a very long stretch between amusement or entertainment and legitimate concern for or understanding of wildlife;  it is even a more insurmountable chasm between amusement and actively, demonstrably acting for or on behalf of conservation of wildlife. There is scarce evidence that this perception is accurate and even less that the translation from seeing to doing is real.

Some of you may have heard about the former “dancing” bears of eastern European countries like Romania and Bulgaria. These were bears that were bought and sold or stolen from the wild. They were exploited for cheap entertainment by people on the street and for economic gain by their owners. They were controlled and confined with a metal ring in their nose and a heavy chain locked either to some structure or attached to their owners belt while he prostituted their behavior on the streets (If you care to read more look for a copy of “Dancing Bears”, by W. Szablowski, 2014).

But these bears were not “dancing”. Using extreme heat, sharp objects and physical prodding, that is physical and psychological abuse, they were trained  – in the words of their owners – to lift their feet when they heard their owners flute or accordion. What they were really doing was simply trying to avoid pain and torture.         Thanks to the determined efforts of international conservation groups the practice is now illegal, and has been largely extinguished, in that part of the world.

The reality is bears do not dance.   So what is the harm in thinking they do?

Humans are visual animals which means most people project human intent,  behavior and sentiment associated with visual images of that bear. The addition of voices only amplifies the notion that bears are human and engage in human activity. Is that something you need in you life? We know bears don’t!

Much of our present day misuse of language and images may appear too superficial to consciously have an impact on human behavior, but it works it’s devious way into our lives surreptitiously and subconsciously. That’s what trivializing wild animals does to people and their subsequent behavior.


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