When the show can’t go on

United Press International (UPI) reported yesterday a rather shocking story of an ice-skating Russian circus bear that killed a trainer during rehearsals for a “Bears on Ice” show by the renowned Russian State Circus, which was on tour in the former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan. The circus bear was later shot dead by the police.

The report reads:

Dimitry Potapov, 25, was dragged across an ice rink by the bear during a rehearsal for a show in Bishkek, the British newspaper The Sun reported. The bear caused critical injuries to an assistant, Yevgeny Popov, 29, who tried to help Potapov.

An eyewitness said the bear “tore Potapov’s neck and legs to pieces.”

The act was part of a Bears on Ice show by the Russian State Circus. Trained bears riding motorcycles, skating and even playing hockey have long been a part of Russian circus tradition, and fatal attacks are unusual.

Police shot the 5-year-old bear.

While the attack took place during a rehearsal, a large crowd was watching, the Novosti news agency reported.

The reason why the 350-kilo circus bear named Senya attacked and killed the trainer has not been made clear. But a closer look on how these bears are forced to ice-skate, play hockey, dance the tango, ride bicycles and motorcycles, and do acrobatics, may give us a hint on why this particular ice-skating Russian circus bear lost its temper.

Well, it is a no-brainer for animal rights activists and animal lovers alike: According to them, these bears, as well as other “working animals” in the circus scene, are not meant to be taken out of their natural habitat and be coerced to act like clowns in the name of entertainment. This exploitation of captive bears for commercial reasons is “sick” and “evil,” says one passionate commenter on YouTube.

Another disgusted US-based YouTube user reacts: “Trying to strap ice-skates on a multi-hundred pound carnivore goes against the natural order. The bear deserves to live in the damn woods, and not get enslaved and dressed up for our silly amusement.” His argument is not without basis: Bears — and other wild animals in ‘commercial captivity’ — are not supposed to be performing all sorts of ice-skating stunts in the first place. It is so unnatural for these wild animals. Unfortunately, such circus practice remains, and is actually popular among circus-loving crowds.

While in captivity, these Russian circus bears have to undergo rigorous training to do those complex circus tricks at such a young age. And what unsuspecting circus-goers do not realize is, these circus bears suffer a great deal of pain, inflicted by their trainers, in order to perfect those human-made routines. Each performing bear comes with a back story of trauma.

According to reports, these overworked circus bears, who live in very small cages, perform mainly out of fear of their masters. During their painful training, they are slapped, punched, kicked, whipped, and beaten with metal rods, while remaining malnourished. And, in some instances, their paws are burnt to force them to stand on their hind legs. Chains and pins are reportedly used to bind their lips, hands, and feet to make them learn certain tricks and obey the trainer. Alas, these helpless animals have become doomed slaves of the circus industry.

Senya, the Russian circus bear in question, must have snapped due to psychological distress caused probably by years of torturous training and overfatigue in an unnatural environment. Surely, there must have been some stimuli that triggered this unforeseen bear attack (rumors have it that the Russian circus is notorious for how badly they treat their bears). Alas, its killer instinct has prevailed; a “resignation letter” has been drafted in blood.

This sad incident should prod people behind the circus industry to rethink their career options. Animals in the wild are meant to be free and not kept in captivity to fuel a million-dollar entertainment industry. While some can be completely tamed, others can go berserk under extreme pressure.

In the end, Senya got shot for following its natural instincts and trying to end what could have been a miserable existence as a circus captive. So much for fulfilling its “duties” as a circus performer. Perhaps, in the general scheme of things, it is better off dead. Meanwhile, the show goes on for all the other circus bear entertainers on tour.


TIDBITS: Click “Read more” to view a short film on the dancing bears in Europe (circa 1924). The film clip shows the extreme suffering of very young cubs, snatched from their mothers’ den, as they go through a rigorous “dance training program.” Without the benefit of any kind of anaesthetic, holes are pierced through their lips, nose or palate and with a chain or rope attached to control their dance movements — a very painful procedure. Bears-for-entertainment history has not entirely changed for the better; maybe it is even worse now. The story of the dancing bears is a truly a bitter one. It is good that some animal rescue organizations work hard to save some of these trapped bears from a life of torture. (Note: Links to web videos on dancing bears in India, Pakistan, Turkey, and Europe included.)

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