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‘n Hart vir vier poteA heart for four paws

op 26.01.10Geen Kommentaar

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Ek ontmoet dr. Amir Khalil, ’n veearts, in sy kantoor by die Lion’s Rock-reservaat net buite Bethlehem in die Vrystaat. Hy is ’n groot man, gebore in Egipte, en praat met ’n glimlag. Die afgelope 15 jaar is hy betrokke by Vier Pfoten (vier pote) en is ook die direkteur van Lion’s Rock, ’n toevlugsoord vir mishandelde groot katte. Hy trek sy skootrekenaar nader en begin my vertel van Vier Pfoten, dansende bere en onskuldige straatbrakkies.

Vier pote op agt lande
Vier Pfoten, ’n nie-winsgewende organisasie, gestig deur Helmut Dungler, het ’n groter hart as die oppervlakte van die agt lande waarby hulle betrokke is. In 2008 het Vier Pfoten sy 20ste verjaardag gevier en die lang lys van gerehabiliteerde diere agter sy naam laat mens besef hoe ongelooflik groot sy taak is – van rondloperhonde tot werksperde, leeus, bere en ’n mobiele veearts in Kenia. Vier Pfoten het ook verskeie veldtogte, wat die regte vir batteryhoenders, die vervoer van diere en die gebruik van pels (die van honde en katte inkluis) insluit. Dis eers as jy met jou eie oë sien watter werk die organisasie doen, dat mens besef hoeveel energie dit neem om die gemors van mishandelaars skoon te maak.
Ons storie begin in Oos-Europa, waar die voorland van rondloperhonde, leeus en bere koud en wreed is. “Nadat die Oosblok-lande deel geword het van die Europese Unie kon die meeste van die dieretuine nie die standaarde handhaaf wat die EU gestel het nie en moes toemaak,” vertel die vryskutregisseur Philip Lennon. Philip het saam met dr. Khalil en Vier Pfoten in 2007 Roemenië toe gegaan om die redding van drie leeus vir die natuurprogram 50/50 te verfilm.
Die Tecuci-dieretuin, in die suidooste van Roemenië, was een van die dieretuine wat deur die Vier Pfoten-span besoek is. Daar was toe nog net drie leeus in die dieretuin oor – Octavian, Cezar en Aurica. Cezar was die oudste van die klomp en op 15-jarige ouderdom was hy net vel, been en verminkte pels. Hierdie drie leeus (saam met vier leeus van Oostenryk met dieselfde bleek toekoms) het langer as 50 uur in kratte deurgebring op hul reis na hul nuwe tuiste by Lion’s Rock. Hier kon hulle darem die laaste deel van hul lewens soos volwaardige leeus met gras onder hul pote deurbring.
Ná hul besoek aan Tecuci het Philip, dr. Khalil en die Vier Pfoten-span na nog ’n dieretuin in Buhuşi vertrek, ’n dorpie wat eens die grootste tekstielfabriek in Suidoos-Europa bestuur het. Maar daardie gloriedae is al lankal verby.
Philip vertel verder. “Die dieretuin in Buhuşi se hokke was soos hoenderhokke – klein en ysig koud met sementvloere. Daar was twee volwasse leeus, wat as welpies voorgehou is om foto’s saam met toeriste te neem vir ’n fooitjie. Om hulle klein te hou, word hulle van die nodige proteïene, voedingswaarde en genoeg kos ontneem. Toe ons daar was, was hulle al ses jaar in hul hokke.”
Hy verduidelik hoe die mannetjieleeu heel normaal gelyk het, maar toe hy opstaan, kon mens sien hoe sy agterlyf hang. Sy bene was heeltemal misvorm en die koning van die oerwoud moes van een punt na die ander punt van sy hokkie skuifel. Die wyfie was nog slegter af. Haar hele lyf is onderontwikkeld, haar pels vol sere en haar beentjies kort. Maar hierdie leeus kon nêrens heen gaan nie – hulle behoort aan die departement van onderwys vir skooluitstappies.
Hy vertel ook van sy ondervinding van die marteldood van rondloperhonde en katte in Boekarest, waar soutsuur gebruik is om van hierdie onskuldige diertjies mee in
te spuit. Vir ’n oomblik het ek al my hoop in die mensdom verloor, en terwyl ek aan my liefste hond dink wat tuis opgekrul vir my lê en wag, wens ek dat ek nooit met hierdie storie begin het nie.
“Maar Vier Pfoten het ingegryp om hierdie onmenslike dade te stop,” red Philip die oomblik. “En het jy geweet dr. Khalil het ook gehelp om al die dansende bere van Bulgarye die vryheid te koop?”
Dr. Khalil het in 2002 Suid-Afrika toe gekom om oplos-sings vir die probleem van geblikte jag te probeer vind. Hy het toe besluit om in Suid-Afrika te bly en Vier Pfoten se voetspoor in Suider-Afrika af te druk. “Dit is ’n uitdaging, maar só doen jy nie net iets goed vir jouself nie, maar ook vir jou familie en die omgewing. Die projekte help ook met werkskepping en jy word deel van die oplossing. Twee dae nadat ek twee jaar gelede die laaste drie bere uit Bulgarye gered het, het ek skielik besef: dit is verby. Daar is nie meer dansende bere in Bulgarye nie. Dit was ’n ongelooflike gevoel.” Dr. Khalil vertel hoe hy elke aand onder ’n dekmantel in Roemenië se disko’s fotoleeutjies (wat die eienaars soos ’n statussimbool rondgedra het) probeer konfiskeer het. Hierdie Oos-Europese leeutjies het nou, danksy hom, ’n voortuisig op ’n beter lewe.

’n Aftree-oord vir leeus
Lion’s Rock het amptelik die hekke van sy toevlugsoord van 1242 hektaar in Februarie 2008 oopgemaak – presies drie maande nadat hulle die eerste Europese leeutjies aangeneem het. Die ironie van die saak is dat die plaas wat Lion’s Rock oorgeneem het eers ’n jagplaas was en dat die vorige eienaars ook leeus geteel het vir geblikte jag.
“Jy moes sien hoe het ons hokke gebou en drade gespan om die park betyds reg te kry vir die nuwe inwoners; dit was ongelooflik,” vertel Annelie de Klerk, parkbestuurder van Lion’s Rock, wat my geneem het om die leeus van nader te bekyk. Ons ry van die een leeukamp na die ander, terwyl sy my vertel van Lion’s Rock en hul leeus. Daar is verskillende fases waar die leeus eers stadig maar seker gewoond moet raak aan mekaar – die aanpassingshokke is langs mekaar sodat die leeus hul bure eers oor die muur kan groet, voor hulle saam na ’n groter hok oorgeplaas word. Leeus wat ook nie deur ’n groep aanvaar word nie word in ’n ander kamp gesit waar hulle meer tuis sal voel.
“Toe dr. Khalil-hulle die leeus by Tecuci-dieretuin moes gaan haal, was daar groot onsekerheid oor Cezar. ’n Leeu se lewensduur is so 15 jaar, en Cezar was toe al 16 jaar en in ’n baie slegte kondisie ná ’n leeftyd op die koue sementvloer in ’n hok van 6 meter by 2 meter.”
Dr. Khalil het besluit dat Cezar nie sal agterbly nie en hy kom toe saam met sy Europese genote Suid-Afrika toe. Ons stop by een van die kampe en daar staan hy, sterk en ’n regte ou leeumannetjie – ene maanhare en brul.
“Dit was sy eerste aanpassing op ruimte en gras,” vertel Annelie. “In die begin kon hy nie loop nie en hy was vreeslik uitasem. Maar met klein porsies vleis en konstante toesig het hy ongelooflik sterk geword.” Die ander leeus wat ook uit Roemenië en Oostenryk gered is, het baie goed aangepas, en geniet nou vir die eerste keer die lewe van ’n leeu.
Die koste verbonde aan die vervoer van hierdie leeus na Suid-Afrika is nie kleingeld nie. Net die vliegkoste van 12 leeus uit Europa was meer as R1 miljoen, met ’n ekstra
R50 000  vir die vervoer van die leeus van O.R. Tambo-lughawe af na Bethlehem. Die kampe van die eerste fase waar die leeus alleen gehuisves word, is 1,5 hektaar per kamp – vir elke leeu wat bykom, word 0,5 hektaar by-gevoeg, en die koste van ’n kamp van 2 hektaar beloop byna R2 miljoen weens die ongelooflike hoë standaard en veiligheidsmaatreëls.
“ Wat grootte en veiligheid betref, is die standaard van die kampe baie hoog,” verseker Annelie my, terwyl ons om die sjarmante Bengaalse tier se kamp koer. Die arme dier is as welpie sonder sy ma aan die vorige plaas verkoop, en het dus ook saam met die plaas gekom toe die Lion’s Rock-span die stuk grond oorgeneem het. Annelie laat my goed verstaan dat ’n wilde dier ’n wilde dier bly, veral as hy met die hand grootgemaak is.
“Jy moet respek hê vir hulle. Mense dink dis oulik om aan welpies te vat, maar dit veroorsaak wel stres en hul natuur bly wild.” Daarom probeer die span van Lion’s Rock ook om soveel as moontlik fisieke kontak met die leeus te vermy.
Hulle het met 23 leeus begin en vandag, twee jaar later, is daar 54 groot katte op die plaas. Boere van die omgewing stel Lion’s Rock in kennis as daar ’n bees of twee op hul plaas gevrek het. Dit het nog net een keer gebeur dat Annelie en haar span moes gaan vleis koop vir die leeus – 48 karkasse word elke maand deur die groot katte verslind. “Ons doen ook baie verrykingsoefeninge met die leeus – ons gee vir hulle op verskeie maniere kos; ons skuif die leeus rond in verskillende hokke sodat hulle die reuke van ander leeus kan ontdek en maak soms ’n spoor van die mis van ’n vreemde leeu of met bloed of vleis.” Hierdie oefeninge laat die leeus toe om uitdrukking te gee aan hul natuurlike optrede. En hoewel hulle nou nie oor die heuwels en dale kan hardloop en jag nie, is hierdie voormalige gevange leeus op die beste en veiligste plek waar hulle kan wees.
Daar is ’n groot aanvraag vir Lion’s Rock om luiperds en ander groot katte in te neem, maar ongelukkig is daar net so ’n groot tekort aan geld vir hokke. “Kyk, as jy jouself uitgee om na ’n wilde dier te kyk, moet jy die standaard kan handhaaf.” Annelie het in November 2006 by Vier Pfoten aangesluit en sy het nooit besef dat die mishandeling van wilde diere so ’n groot probleem is nie. “Suid-Afrika is ver voor Europese standaarde as dit kom by wilde diere en diereregte, maar na my mening moet Suid-Afrikaners meer bewus gemaak word van dieremishandeling.”
Lion’s Rock het ook ’n lodge waar gaste kan oorbly en die geld wat so gegenereer word, word teruggeploeg in die versorging van die groot katte. Hoewel daar wildritte vir besoekers beskikbaar is, word die diere op die plaas nie ten toon gestel nie. Daar is meer as genoeg bome en beskutting as Cezar of van sy makkers nie lus is om gesig te wys nie – ’n voorreg wat hulle nooit agter die tralies gehad het nie.

’n Nuwe toevoeging tot die familie
In April vanjaar het ’n nuwe wyfie, Savannah, haar by die res van Lion’s Rock se leeus aangesluit. Sy en haar boetie Shumba het so 50 km buite Ladysmith op die wildreservaat Nambiti gebly nadat hulle deur Crow (Centre for Rehabilitation and Wildlife) gekonfiskeer is.
“Ons is deur KwaZulu-Natal Wildlife gekontak met die nuus dat twee leeuwelpies onwettig aangehou word vir geblikte jag,” vertel bioloog dr. Helena Fitchat van Crow. Hulle het toe vir Savannah en Shumba op ’n jong ouderdom gekonfiskeer, maar as gevolg van die baie menslike kontak wat hierdie welpies gehad het, kon hulle nie weer in die wildernis vrygelaat word nie. Die welpies was ook baie gespanne en het nie meer baie pels oorgehad nie. Crow het toe ná 18 maande vir Savannah en Shumba na Nambiti geneem vir rehabiliteringsdoeleindes, maar kort voor lank het die ongeluk hulle weer getref. Die ander leeus op die plaas het glad nie vir Savannah en Shumba aanvaar nie en het hulle konstant geïntimideer. Hulle is toe in ’n kamp van 200m x 200m geplaas, maar die ander leeus van die plaas wou hulle steeds nie uitlos nie en het gereeld die kamp besoek om hul merk te maak en skoor te soek. Vroeg in April het die leeus vir Shumba, nadat hy teen die heining van die kamp opgespring het om sy man te staan, deur die heining getrek en hom doodgemaak. Savannah was volgende en daarom is daar besluit om haar Lion’s Rock toe te neem.
Ongelukkig is die groot taak nog lank nie verby nie – daar word nog sowat  4 500 leeus in hartverskeurende toestande gevange gehou. Maar met dr. Khalil en Vier Pfoten se doel om diere uit haglike omstandighede te bevry en te rehabiliteer is daar beslis nog hoop.

Die dansende bere
In die middel van die 19de eeu het sigeuner-beereienaars uit Roemenië na verskeie Bulgaarse dorpies verhuis. Die tradisie en beroep van dansende bere is deur generasies van pa na seun oorgedra en was die bron van baie families se inkomste.  Dit begin deur wyfiebere met kleintjies te vermoor en dan die kleintjies te vat en “op te lei”. Die beertjies begin hul “opleiding” op warm kole of metaal. Wat as dans gesien word, is eintlik die byproduk van ongelooflike pyn. ’n Ring word in hul neuse – die sensitiefste plek op hul liggaam – gesit en aan ’n ketting vasgemaak. Met ’n daaglikse dieet van slegs 11 kg suiker en brood word hulle deur die dorpies op trems en straathoeke aan die neus gelei met nie ’n tand in hul mond nie. Die bere se naels word ook soms uitgetrek, wat vir ’n mens sal voel asof hul vingers afgeruk word. En daardie bere het name – Bobby is deur sy eienaars ingespan vir gevegte teen mense; Mariana is deur pyn en honger gedwing om te dans en het ernstige geestelike afwykings as gevolg daarvan opgedoen; Stefan se neusmembraan het begin ontsteek en Violetta het bitter min pels oorgehad weens jare lange mishandeling en ondervoeding. Dit is net vier van die 25 bere wat in sewe jaar deur Vier Pfoten se onderhandeling gered is. “Ons red nie net die bere nie, ons kry ook ’n ander bron van inkomste vir hul handelaars,” vertel dr. Amir Khalil.
Die projek is in 1999 begin en ’n rehabilitasiepark, die Dancing Bears Park in Belis-ta, is saam met Foundation Bridget Bardot opgerig om vir die dansende soogdiere ’n veilige hawe te skep.
Dr. Khalil, ’n gekwalifiseerde veearts, wat in meer as een taal ’n dier kan red, het in sy beste Bulgaars onderhandel en gehelp om die bere by hul eienaars te koop. “’n Mens kan nie net die diere van hul eienaars wegvat nie; jy moet die hele gemeenskap rehabiliteer, mens en dier,” sê hy.

‘n Paar Vier Pfoten-projekte

  • Vier Pfoten het sedert 1988 verskeie steriliseringsprojekte vir rondloperhonde begin. Van Roemenië tot Griekeland, Kroasië, Masedonië, Bulgarye, Slowakye en Egipte is duisende honde reggemaak en ingeënt teen siektes. Sommige van die honde word ook opgelei en ingespan as terapiehonde vir die Four Paws Dogs for People-projek.
  • Die werkperde in Konya, Turkye, wat ondervoed, oorwerk en aan die dood oorgelaat word, word ook deur Vier Pfoten gerehabiliteer. Die gemeenskappe word ook touwys gemaak oor die korrekte hantering van hul diere.
  • Daar is ook ’n Vier Pfoten-eenheid in die noorde van Indië wat kos en inentings vir vee en honde verskaf.

Besoek gerus www.vierpfoten.org vir meer besonderhede.

Deur Carina van Heerden Foto’s Mihai Vasile

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I’m meeting Dr Amir Khalil, a veterinarian, in his office at the Lionsrock game reserve just outside Bethlehem in the Free State. He’s a big man, born in Egypt, and he smiles easily when he talks. He’s been involved with Four Paws for the past 15 years and is also the director of Lionsrock, a sanctuary for abused big cats. He pulls his laptop closer and starts telling me about Four Paws, dancing bears and innocent mongrels.

Four paws in eight countries
Four Paws, or Vier Pfoten in the original German, was founded by Helmut Dungler. This non-profit organisation has a bigger heart than the eight countries it operates in, and it celebrated its 20th birthday in 2008. The long list of rehabilitated animals next to its name makes you realise how unbelievably big its task is – from stray dogs to working horses, lions, bears and a mobile vet in Kenya. Four Paws also runs various campaigns, projects that focus on the rights of battery hens, the humane transport of animals and the use of fur (including that of dogs and cats). But until you physically see the work this organisation does, you won’t understand how much energy it takes to clean up the mess left behind by animal abusers.
Our story begins in Eastern Europe, where a cold, cruel fate awaits lions, bears and stray dogs. “After the Eastern Bloc countries became part of the European Union, most of the zoos couldn’t maintain the standards required by the EU and had to close down,” says freelance television director Philip Lennon. Philip accompanied Dr Khalil and Four Paws in 2007 when they went to Romania to film the rescue of three lions for the television programme 50/50.
The Tecuci Zoo in south-east Romania was one of the zoos that the Four Paws team visited. By that time, there were only three lions left in the zoo – Octavian, Cezar and Aurica. Cezar was the oldest of the bunch and at 15 years of age he was just skin, bone and mangled fur. These three lions (plus four lions from Austria that had a similar bleak future) spent more than 50 hours in crates on the journey to their new home at Lionsrock. Here, they could at least spend the last part of their lives like real lions with grass under their paws.
After their visit to Tecuci, Philip, Dr Khalil and the Four Paws team left for another zoo in Buhuşi, a town that was once home to the biggest textile factory in south-eastern Europe. But those glory days have long gone.
Philip offers more. “The cages in the Buhuşi zoo were like chicken coops – tiny and freezing cold with cement floors. Two lions were used as cubs that could be photographed with tourists for a small fee. To keep them small, they were starved of proteins and nutrients; they weren’t given anywhere near enough food. When we got there, they’d already been in their cages for six years.”
He explains how the male lion looked quite normal at first, but as soon as he got up you could see his hindquarters sagging. His legs were totally deformed and the king of the jungle had to shuffle from one end of his little cage to the other. The female was even worse off. Her whole body was underdeveloped, her coat full of sores and her legs too short. But these lions weren’t going anywhere – they belonged to the department of education for school excursions.
He also tells of his experience with the torturous killing of stray dogs and cats in Bucharest, where some of these harmless animals were injected with hydrochloric acid.
For a moment I lost all my faith in humankind, and as
I thought of my darling dog curled up at home waiting for me,
I wished I’d never started this article.
“But Four Paws stepped in and put an end to these inhumane deeds,” says Philip, saving the moment. “And did you know that Dr Khalil also helped to buy the freedom of all of Bulgaria’s dancing bears?”
Dr Khalil came to South Africa in 2002 to try to find solutions to the problem of canned hunting. He then decided to stay in the country and make Four Paws’ mark on Southern Africa. “It’s a challenge, but in doing this you not only do something good for yourself but also for your family and the environment. The projects also help with job creation and so you become part of the solution. Two years ago, two days after I’d rescued the last three bears from Bulgaria, I suddenly realised: it’s over. There are no more dancing bears in Bulgaria. It was an incredible feeling.”
Dr Khalil tells me how he went to Romania’s nightclubs in disguise every night and tried to confiscate the photo cubs, which the owners carried around like status symbols.

A retirement village for lions
Lionsrock officially opened the gates of its 1 242-hectare sanctuary in February 2008 – three months to the day that they adopted the first European lion cubs. Ironically enough, the farm that Lionsrock took over had been a game farm and the previous owners had also bred lions for canned hunting.
“You should have seen us building cages and putting up fences to get the park ready in time for the new residents! It was unbelievable,” relates Annelie de Klerk, park manager of Lionsrock, who takes me to see the lions up close.
We drive from one lion enclosure to the next as she tells me about Lionsrock and their lions. There are various phases during which the lions get used to one another slowly, but surely. The familiarisation camps are adjacent so that the lions can first check out their neighbours across the wall before the groups are put in a bigger enclosure together. Those lions that are not accepted into a pride are placed in a different camp where they can feel more comfortable.
“When Dr Khalil and his team went to fetch the lions from the Tecuci Zoo, there was a lot of uncertainty about Cezar. A lion’s life expectancy is about 15 years, and by that time Cezar was already 16 – and in a very bad state after a lifetime on a cold cement floor in a cage just six metres by two metres.”
Dr Khalil decided that Cezar would not be left behind and he came to South Africa along with his fellow Europeans. We stop at one of the camps and I see him standing there, looking powerful. He’s pure lion: all mane and roar.
“He had to adjust to both the space and the grass,” says Annelie. “At the beginning, he could hardly walk and he was out of breath all the time. But with small portions of meat and constant supervision he became extraordinarily strong.” The other lions that were also rescued from Romania and Austria adapted really well and are now enjoying a lion’s life for the first time.
The cost involved in transporting these lions to South Africa isn’t exactly small change. Just flying the 12 animals from Europe cost more than R1 million, and then it took an additional R50 000 to move the animals from OR Tambo Airport to Bethlehem. Each of the enclosures for the first phase, during which the lions are accommodated individually, is 1,5 hectares in size. For every lion that is added, another 0,5 hectare is added, and the cost of an enclosure of two hectares amounts to almost R2 million due to the reserve’s extremely high standards and meticulous safety measures.
“The camp’s standards are very high in terms of size as well as security,” Annelie assures me as we enthuse about the charming Bengal tiger’s enclosure. The poor animal was sold without his mother to the farm’s previous owner, and was consequently part of the package when the Lionsrock team took over the land. Annelie makes it clear that a wild animal is still a wild animal, even if it was raised by humans.
“You need to respect them. People think it’s cute to touch cubs, but it distresses them and their nature is still wild.” That’s why the team from Lionsrock try to avoid physical contact with the lions as far as possible.
They started with 23 lions and today, two years later, there are 54 big cats on the farm. Farmers from the surrounding areas inform Lionsrock when some of their cattle die and the carcasses are used to feed the lions. In fact, only once have Annelie and her team needed to buy meat – and 48 carcasses are devoured by the big cats every month. “We also do many enhancement exercises with the lions: we feed them in different ways, we move them around in different cages so they can discover the scents of other lions, and we make a trail from the droppings of an unfamiliar lion or from blood or meat.” These exercises allow the lions to express their natural behaviour. And although they can’t quite run around on the plains and hunt, these formerly captive lions are in the best and safest place they can be.
Lionsrock receives a lot of requests to take in leopards and other big cats, but unfortunately there is a huge lack of funds for cages. “When you promote yourself as someone who looks after wild animals, you have to be able to maintain the standard.” Annelie joined Four Paws in November 2006. She’d never realised how big the problem of wild animal abuse really is. “South Africa is light-years ahead of European standards when it comes to wild animals and animal rights, but in my opinion South Africans should be made more aware of animal abuse.”
Lionsrock also has a guest lodge and the money it generates is reinvested into caring for the big cats. Although the reserve offers game drives to guests, no animals are put on display. There are more than enough trees and cover if Cezar and his buddies don’t feel like making an appearance – a luxury they never had while living behind bars.

A new addition to the family
In April this year, a new female named Savannah joined the rest of the Lionsrock lions. She lived with her brother Shumba in the Nambiti Game Reserve, about 50km outside Ladysmith, after being confiscated by CROW (Centre for Rehabilitation of Wildlife).
“We were contacted by KwaZulu-Natal Wildlife with the news that two lion cubs were being kept illegally for canned hunting purposes,” says Dr Helena Fitchat, a biologist from CROW. They then confiscated Savannah and Shumba at a young age, but because of all the contact these cubs had had with humans, they could not be released into the wild again. The cubs were also highly stressed and didn’t have much fur left. After 18 months, CROW took Savannah and Shumba to Nambiti for rehabilitation, but before long the siblings were overtaken by misfortune yet again. The other lions in the reserve didn’t accept them and constantly intimidated them. The two were then placed in a 200m x 200m enclosure, but the other lions still didn’t leave them alone and visited the enclosure frequently to make their mark and pick quarrels. Early in April, the other lions dragged Shumba through the fence and killed him after he’d jumped up against the fence to stand his ground. Savannah would be next, and so it was decided that she be taken to Lionsrock.
Unfortunately, the hard work is far from over and approximately 4 500 lions are still held captive in heart-breaking conditions. But as long as Dr Khalil and Four Paws aim to free animals from disgraceful circumstances and rehabilitate them, there remains hope.

The dancing bears
In the middle of the 19th century, gypsy bear owners from Romania moved to various Bulgarian towns. The traditions and trade of dancing bears were handed down from father to son for generations and was the only source of income for many families. They would kill the female bears, then take their cubs and “train” them. The cubs began their “training” on hot coals or metal. What was seen as dancing was actually the result of incredible pain. Their noses – the most sensitive part of their bodies – were pierced and the ring was linked to a chain. On a daily diet of only 11kg of sugar and bread they were led through the towns by the nose, onto trams and street corners, with not a single tooth in their mouths. The bears’ claws were also often pulled out; to a human it would be similar to a finger being ripped off. And the bears had names: Bobby’s owner used him for fights against humans; Mariana was forced to dance to avoid pain and hunger and developed serious psychological problems as a result; Stefan’s nasal membrane became infected; and Violetta had hardly any fur left as a result of years of abuse and malnutrition. These are just four of the 25 bears that were rescued in seven years via Four Paws’ negotiations. “We don’t only rescue the bears, we also find an alternative source of income for their owners,” says Dr Amir Khalil.
The bear rescue project was launched in 1999 and a rehabilitation park, the Dancing Bears Park in Belista, was founded in cooperation with the Brigitte Bardot Foundation in order to create a safe haven for dancing mammals.
Dr Khalil, a qualified veterinarian who saves animals in more than one language, negotiated in his best Bulgarian and helped buy the animals from their owners. “You can’t just take the animals from their owners. You have to rehabilitate the whole community, both people and animals,” he says.

Four Paws projects

  • Since 1988, Four Paws has initiated various sterilisation projects for stray dogs. From Romania to Greece, Croatia, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Slovakia and Egypt, thousands of dogs have been sterilised and vaccinated against diseases. Some of the dogs are now also trained and used as therapy dogs in the Four Paws Dogs for People project.
  • Work horses from Konya, Turkey that are underfed, overworked or have been left for dead are rehabilitated by Four Paws. The communities are also instructed in caring for their animals correctly.
  • A Four Paws branch in northern India provides food and vaccinations for both cattle and dogs.

Visit www.vierpfoten.org for more information.

By Carina van Heerden Photos Mihai Vasile

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