Dancing bears of IstanbulYesterday was the last night of the Mooncake Festival, and my mom suggested a drive around the neighbourhood to look at the lighted paper lanterns. Very few houses had lanterns lit up in their gardens, but the ones that made the effort looked striking. There were also children on their bikes or on foot, carrying the brightly coloured lanterns. I kicked myself for not bringing my camera, but then again, I hadn’t even made the effort to wear outside clothes, and was happily driving around in my jammies. There were some fireworks too, last night.
When we got home, we watched this documentary on dancing bears in Turkey. These bears are subjugated to a life of performance; the bears are forced to stand on their hind legs and “dance” in the streets of Istanbul. Trained by gypsies, these bears are often badly treated, and would go blind from malnutrition or mad for being constantly chained. The documentary filmed WSPA’s (World Society for the Protection of Animals) confiscation of 14 such bears in the middle of the night from a gypsy camp near Istanbul. It was all very dramatic and made good tv, especially when the documentary ended with a shot of releasing a former dancing bear in a small wooded, caged sanctuary, and the people involved in its recapture were all tearing up. I almost expected a violin solo or something to that effect. Ok, I did really feel for the bears and it was awful seeing the bears pace up and down as much as they could from the short chains, the nose piercing on the bears, with a chain attached to it, the blind bears, etc..
However, I was also left feeling dissatisfied from the documentary because while these 14 bears were saved, it didn’t really provide a long-term solution for all bears in Turkey, and elsewhere in the world that are forced to well, dance. They interviewed a gypsy who admitted that this was their only source of avenue, and that he had hoped that his son would continue this tradition, to support his family. I understand that WSPA is for the welfare of the animals first and foremost, but perhaps cooperating with the gypsies in the first place and helping them find an alternative source of income would be more favourable than stealing 14 bears in the dead of night. It seems counterproductive to antagonize the gypsies and not explain why they (WSPA) are doing this, or why it is important to conserve bears in the wild. Who’s to say that the gypsies would just procure more bears elsewhere and force them to dance, dance, dance?
The documentary did give some airtime to a journalist who explained that to the gypsies, they do not seem themselves as mistreating the animals, anymore than how they are being mistreated by the non-gypsies. To them, the bears are just another livestock that they can use to better their lives. As Marita would say, it takes a paradigm shift for a whole group of people to understand the concept of wildlife conservation. And how do we get there? By working together with the people, and not stealing their livelihood. Someone recently told me that conservation is the most depressing livelihood to be in, but sometimes, at the end of the day, I would like to believe that I am doing something worthwhile, and that my actions, through work and volunteer, would contribute somehow, to the greater good.
So after watching this documentary, and having swirling thoughts in my head on what WSPA or any other ngos could do more to help the dancing bears AND the gypsies, I was told today that I had a “black & white” view of the world. I think that was a black & white opinion of me, really. I’m not completely against eating wild meat, or hunting – I realize that in some indigenous rural communities, this is the only way to obtain protein in their diet. But I am rather strident on those whom I feel are not doing their jobs properly and saying otherwise. And I definitely believe that to make conservation work at all, you gotta work together with the rural communities and beyond, whether you like it or not. To disagree with this person would have been a waste of time, I felt, and my denials would just make me sound defensive. I think through my actions and words, they would understand that I don’t always see only Good or Bad sides all the time. Anyway, isn’t it better to have an opinion on vital issues, than to not react at all?