Trip of a lifetime

By: Dr. Scott Miller – Veterinary surgeon

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A WHIRLWIND of organisational wizardry meant, that with just three days notice, I jetted off on the trip of a lifetime to two bear sanctuaries in India for a film documentary to be shown on ITV’s This Morning television programme. My guide was Alan Knight, CEO of International Animal Rescue (IAR), who had organised the trip to highlight the honourable work of the charity in helping to eradicate the cruel practice of dancing bears. After over eight hours on a plane, the film crew and I arrived in Dehli airport.

The first few minutes of our four hour bus journey to the bear sanctuary was a massive culture shock. The human population seemed ever present along the entire 100 mile stretch of road to our destination of Agra, home of the Taj Mahal.

Overlapped by a rich variety of wayward animals, including cattle, horses, donkeys, camels and dogs, the journey exposed us to the poverty abounding in the region, with pools of stagnant water and piles of rubbish surrounding beautiful children playing in the rubble.

On the journey to Agra I was introduced to my fellow travellers, a team of health professionals assembled to tackle the dental problems of the bears in the sanctuary. In conjunction with the Indian Government and local charity Wildlife SOS, I was invited to film their work with sloth bears, including the procedures to be completed by my dental colleagues.

In our heavenly air-conditioned bus, I met team leader Paul Cassar, a trustee of IAR and dental practitioner from Chichester. Joining him was dentist Caroline Ingamells from Keswick in Cumbria who, like me, was enjoying her first Indian experience. Complimented with the attuned skills of specialist veterinary dentist, South African, Lisa Milella, the dentists were to tackle broken teeth, which every rescued dancing bear sported as a result of their teeth being callously smashed out by their previous cruel owners.

The Kalandar nomads have traditionally danced bears to eek out an existence from passing tourists for over 300 years. Gained from poachers as cubs, the bears go through a series of harrowing tortures before living a life of pain at the end of a four foot rope. Teeth are smashed using iron bars or hammers to avoid their captors or tourists being bitten, then ropes, placed through holes made in their noses using a hot poker, are attached.

The so called ‘dancing’ is nothing more than the bears’ attempt to avoid excruciating pain, inflicted when the rope is wrenched by its captor. Forced to stand on their back legs, the animals shake their heads to keep from straining on the rope, with bells adorning their necks and shaggy fur flicking to the movement, making the process appear dance-like.

On arriving at the sanctuary, a particularly important patient awaited the dentists, an imposing male bear called Jumbovan. Known to the keepers as a bear not to be messed with, he had a history of biting other bears and a generally surly attitude.

After the horrific experiences suffered by these bears, it was surprising to learn that many held no ill will towards humans and it was suspected that Jumbovan’s irritable nature was due to dental pain. This theory had previously been proven with a bear called Anthony who, after a dental procedure to remove degenerate fractured canine roots during the dentists last visit, had been transformed from a bear the keepers wouldn’t dare to go near to one very contented boy.

Paul and Caroline showed me a cast made of Jumbovan’s teeth in the UK after his problems were detected previously. Using this cast, Paul had fashioned a gold crown for one of his teeth, and it is thought he is the first bear in history to be given such an adornment. Thinking that gold seemed a slightly decadent choice to use on a sloth bear, Caroline assured me that it was the best material to use because of its malleability and non-toxicity if swallowed.

When Jumbovan’s turn came, he was darted by blowpipe then placed on a stretcher and weighed, coming in at 100kg. When there, I was given the honour of placing a venous catheter, which was a rush considering I am only used to doing this procedure on pet feline and canine patients back home. Veterinary dentist Lisa then took an x-ray of his teeth and we examined the x-ray together. With degenerative changes evident, Lisa decided that Jumbovan’s opposite lower canine was dead and needed removal, an unfortunate finding resulting in his procedure instantly doubling in length.  

While the dentists worked away, I was invited to step into an enclosure with a number of blind bears, whose lives had been recently transformed. Sanctuary manager and entertaining character, Kartick Satyanarayan, implemented various environmental enrichments put in place to help stimulate the bears wild behaviour, in order for them to better utilise their enclosures. Blind because of nutritional deficiencies or brutality as youngsters, Ganesha had come out of his covered enclosure only after the various challenges were introduced to test his foraging skills and keen sense of smell. The most spectacular of these was a wobble tree – a 10 foot bamboo pole topped by a box with large holes drilled out of the bottom. Known in the wild to shake trees to dislodge food such as fruit, the friendly Ganesha was keen to mount the wobble tree, food rained down over both of us, much to delight of the bear and the many onlookers.

Back in the surgical theatre, the team of dentists had worked for nearly four hours before placing the gold crown on Jumbovan’s canine tooth. After the drip was removed and antibiotics given, the bear was allowed to recover in the internal part of his enclosure, which we vacated quickly to avoid the wrath of a bear with a very sore head.

He recovered well, with the keepers hoping for a similar improvement in behaviour, as in Anthony’s case, after the cause of dental pain had been treated.

As a treat for us all, Alan organised an up close meeting with the adorable Leila, a five-month-old bear cub rescued from poachers. Soon gaining her confidence, the friendly and playful bear mouthed and licked me with great affection. Enamoured by these beautiful creatures, it confirmed the righteous work of IAR and Wildlife SOS to eradicate bears’ torture at the hands of the Kalander nomads.

Taking a holistic approach to the problem, and understanding that people have used the bears to earn a living for hundreds of years, the charities support numerous educational projects to retrain them. Funding a sewing school for the women and driver training for the men, the Kalander population is slowly coming around to the relinquishment of their bears in pursuit of a better life for the animals and themselves.

IAR and Wildlife SOS desperately need funds to help with their work, which extends throughout India and the rest of  the world. Visit or contact them at:

International Animal Rescue

Lime House

Regency Close

Uckfield, East Sussex

TN22 1DS, United Kingdom

Or by Telephone: 00 44 (0)1825 767688.