Two Sloth Bears and their Human Family

Spending a day with a kalander family leads the author to re-examine her understanding of animal cruelty

I had met Geeta Seshamani years ago, while still a student. She is the founder of Friendicoes, an animal shelter that caters for stray animals. I had often taken many injured stray animals from the streets of Delhi to them and Friendicoes always treated them with great compassion and love. Geeta was a college professor and has a deep and compassionate love for animals, which she channelled into a life filled with working for them. She has a partner, her nephew, a young man Kartick, whom I first met on a snake rescue story. Built large and with a booming laugh, Kartick also had great compassion and passion for animals. His was more of a crusade to rescue animals in distress and stop poaching. By 2004, they had co-founded the Agra Bear Rescue Centre and were the heart of the Indian chapter of Wildlife SOS, an international animal rescue and conservation organisation. Over the years, I had become better acquainted with Kartick and when I heard of the work he was doing with sloth bears, I decided to feature him in Born Wild.

It was then that I met a kalander family and spent time with them. As part of the story, I wanted to get an understanding of why the kalanders were engaged in such a cruel livelihood. My day with the family turned many things for me on its head. I can’t say that this was the first time my line of thinking changed profoundly but I can say that this was definitely one of the times I remember feeling a whole seismic shift in the way I would start viewing people in this landscape of conservation. The family was an extended one consisting of an old grandfather, an aunt and uncle and their children, and a mother and father and their children. They were about twelve members in all. They owned two sloth bears. There was also a large horned owl. The bears were tied up in the courtyard and the family sat outside on charpoys in front of their small mud dwelling. This family had volunteered to give up their bears to Wildlife SOS. In return, they would get a small stipend and a loan to start a new life. The father was being set up with a small shop and the women were learning to sew. Small donations were also being sourced to send the children to school. It was only then that I saw the human faces behind the people I only thought of as cruel bear oppressors. I had never once wondered, why would people want to be in this business?

Kalanders are a community of wandering nomads who travel from place to place with their dancing bears, earning money by making them perform. Entire families depended on this meagre income and it was the only way of life they knew that was accessible to them. a community of the minority religion, it was also not easy for them to become assimilated into mainstream life. Their children were never in any one place too long to go to school and often, there was no money to send them either. Also seen as low caste and dirty because of their practice of living with their animals, they were not exactly welcome everywhere they went, even if they wanted to settle down. Some communities had set up small places near Agra and Jaipur. Here, with the highways bringing in tourists, they figured business would at least pay for their food.

A rescued sloth bear at the Agra Bear Rescue Facility. Photo: Rhealopez168 / CC BY-SA 4.0

A rescued sloth bear at the Agra Bear Rescue Facility. Photo: Rhealopez168 / CC BY-SA 4.0

Some reports suggest that the kalander community had started this practice in the thirteenth century in the courts of the Mughal emperors, while other reports suggest that the practice started as early as the Indus valley civilization (7000-300 BC). while the historians might not be able to agree on an actual date, it is very apparent that it is an old and traditional practice. Sloth bears, when young, are very needy. They stay with their mothers until they are almost two- and-a-half years old. They crave contact and need to be held a lot. This makes them animals that are relatively tameable. I say relatively because once they reach sexual maturity, they become very big, strong and dangerous unless handled very carefully. Of course, just like with any other animal or us human animals, different personalities abound, making them more or less tame like the other animals, but for the most part, they stay wild at heart.

This family knew no other way of life. The old grandfather could remember his old grandfather with bears, and he grew up with them and that’s the way it has always been. Sitting under a tree that day and watching the young children stroke the bear and feed it small bits of roti, I had an epiphany. They were not being cruel. They lived in a world where every meal was a challenge, every day a struggle, and the future was a hazy mirage that actually did not exist. Their lives were cruel. They actually loved their bears. Apart from the horrific nose ring and rope, there were no other marks of daily abuse inflicted on the bears. Yes, some families declawed the bears and removed their teeth, but that was done while they were still young. There was no daily beating, starving or casual cruelty. They could not even understand why I was distressed about the bear’s nose. It is what had to be done to control them. The family was scared, puzzled and wary of what their new future would bring.

It struck me then. It is so easy for us in our comfortable lives to freely wave around words like cruelty, abuse and evil, but if our comfortable lives were ripped away and we were left on the streets, what might we do? Yes, poaching was an awful scourge and had to be stopped, but how much of my lifestyle was leading to the sloth bears’ habitat being destroyed and them dying because of that? It was an afternoon of uncomfortable questions and intensely uncomfortable answers. When the mother brought me a small cup of tea and casually gave a banana to the bear and I watched the children stare at the food, I wondered, how many evenings had this family gone to bed hungry and yet found some food for their bears?

Excerpted with permission from Born Wild: Journeys into the Wild Hearts of India and Africa by Swati Thiyagarajan, published by Bloomsbury, Price: Rs 602.00

Swati Thiyagarajan
Swati Thiyagarajan

is an award-winning environment journalist, author and filmmaker. She is the consulting environment editor at NDTV.

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