Most of the people when reading about ‘dancing bears’ think about tortured animals with forcibly suppressed natural instincts. And they are right. However, there is one place where this terrible practice of training bears to ‘dance’ for the entertainment of humans is forgotten and outdated. It is the Dancing Bears Park in Belitsa, Bulgaria.
When I was a young girl, it was usual to see dancing bears and monkeys showing tricks to the spectator on the streets. It was usually during fairs and you can imagine that I, like every child, was impatiently waiting for these events. All people, not only the children, were laughing at the monkey’s pantomime and the bear’s dances. We were enjoying seeing these animals, so unusual be seen up close in our urbanized areas. Many years passed before I understood what these animals were suffering, for mine and other’s amusement.
The Dancing Bears Park – probably the best family tourist site in Bulgaria
It was about ten years ago when I visited the park for the first time. I remember that I was amazed by the deep forest in which the park is nested and the good standards to which this whole installation was built. During this first visit, I was shocked by the stories of these bears, each of these stories was a destiny of suffering and life in pain.
Learn about the stories and get to know the bears (and their names)
To train them to ‘dance’, the process started at a very young age. The young bears were separated from their mommies at age 3-6 months and to make things even more awful, their mothers were killed. The first step toward slavery and obedience was putting a ring in their most sensitive body part – the nose. Their claws were trimmed several times a year and their canine teeth were broken or removed – all this to prevent them to defend themselves and to attack their trainer. Because of this unimaginable cruelty, later the grown-up bears were showing atypical behaviour patterns that even include a self-mutilation.
Violeta is the oldest bear in the compound; she is 35 years old and loves to be taken in photos as I could see. She is not beautiful tho – her nose is terribly damaged by the ring and chain by which she was attached to her owner.
Monty is the youngest bear in the park. He is 7 years old and was rescued from a hotel where he was kept in a small room with bars to attract customers.
The park is a retirement home for the dancing bears in Bulgaria
Now, the bears live a peaceful life. It’s like a recreation lodge, after all, they have been suffering before. There are medical teams making their annual check-ups, there is nutritious food three times a day; there are swimming pools for the hot summer days and man-made dens for those who don’t know how to make one for their hibernation; there are a peace and quiet, and no one is expecting them to ‘dance’. The park is a retirement home for the dancing bears.
You can learn a lot more during your visit to the park. All your questions about the bears’ past and present life will be answered by the young enthusiastic staff of the park.
ABOUT THE DANCING BEARS PARK PROJECT
The Dancing Bears Park Belitsa, Bulgaria, is the largest conservation centre for the protection of brown bears in Europe. It covers 120 000 square meters and is home to 26 brown bears of different age. Each bear has 3000 sq. m. of habitat space. This park is a favourite place for a visit, especially for children as it is the ONLY place where bears can be observed to live in (almost) natural habitat. It becomes an increasingly popular place for family trips in Bulgaria.
How It All Started
In the 90s, when foreign tourists visiting the Bulgarian Black Sea Coast noticed the presence of the dancing bears, they contacted the Four Paws Organization. The international organization for animal protection sent a small team for a study the results of which were devastating – 20 bears were used as a tourist attraction. The state laws in the country at that time did not help to improve the situation and the Roma families who are dealing with this business refused to stop this practice.
However, after persistent efforts, the problem was solved and the park was created. Now, there are no more dancing bears in Bulgaria, and the brown bear is included as a protected animal in the Red Data Book of Bulgaria.
The project officially started in 2000 when the first three bears were rescued – Kalina, Maryana, and Stefan (all bears have beautiful Bulgarian names). In 2007 the desired goal was achieved – all dancing bears in Bulgaria are rescued.
The information centre in the park is built in the form of Noah’s ark and has a symbolic meaning – to embody the salvation of animals from doom. Beautiful analogy. Underneath is the medical centre where are performed the yearly check-ups of the bears and medical interventions when needed.
HOW TO VISIT THE DANCING BEARS PARK IN BELITSA
Since this summer, it is easier to reach the park thanks to the new asphalt road from Belitsa.
You can visit the Dancing Bears Park from Sofia, Plovdiv, Bansko/Razlog or Velingrad. A one-day trip from Sofia is doable and the distance in one direction is 180 km. You can drive on the highway Sofia-Blagoevgrad, then take the road to Bansko. From Bansko take the direction to Velingrad and soon you will reach the junction to Belitsa.
From the junction on the main road (Bansko-Velingrad) to Belitsa, it takes around 15 more km to reach the town. And then it starts to be a little bit complex. If the main road is not under reconstruction (as it is at the moment and maybe will be in the next one year), look for boards with the logo of the park. If there are no boards, ask the locals for direction. They are extremely nice people and will show you the way.
The only problem is that most of them do not speak English. So my advice is to have the Dancing Bears Park written in Bulgarian and show it to them. They will guide you with gestures. It isn’t difficult to reach the park; it is just a little bit complex. But it is totally worth the effort.
In fact, the park was not easily accessible even for Bulgarians until last year. You needed a four-wheel vehicle or just to decide to risk your car, as I did with my family several times. This year there is a new asphalt road that goes (almost) to the park. The last three kilometres are still rural road but it is relatively well maintained by the park’s administration. I went with my Audi A3 without a problem. Just drive carefully. The sceneries are beautiful as the park is situated in Bulgaria’s highest mountain – Rila Mountain.
HOW MUCH IT COST TO VISIT
From this year, as the number of visitors has increased, there are guided tours every 30 minutes.
Entrance fees are:
Adults – 6 BGN (equivalent to 3 Euro)
Children – 3 BGN
For groups – should be booked in advance
Get the most recent information before your visit on the park’s Facebook page. Sometimes they offer free entry during the holidays and post updates about the bears’ lives.
WHEN TO GO TO SEE THE DANCING BEARS IN BULGARIA
The park is open for visitors from April to November. In the period December – March the bears hibernate.
The opening times are:
April – June – from 12 noon to 6 p.m.
July – August – from 10 a.m. to noon and 1 p.m. to 6 p.m.
September – November – from noon to 6 p.m.
TAKE A PICNIC BASKET!
One of my favourite things when visiting this park is to have a quiet picnic after the visit. Emotionally recharged and happy with the beautiful sunny day in the mountain, sit on one of the picnic tables arranged in front of the park. Believe me when I say that you can spend easily a full day next to these happy bears!
WHAT MORE YOU CAN DO FOR THE BEARS
As the park is entirely financed by two charity foundations, donations are always welcomed. You will find the official bank account for donations on the brochure you will get during your visit.
SHARE YOUR EXPERIENCE
Share your experience! Let more people know about this beautiful park and its happy residents. SEE what others have to say about the park in TripAdvisor.
Have you visited other animal sanctuaries like the Dancing Bears Park Belitsa? Where they are and what have you learned about the animals?