For as long as he could remember, the bear had felt nothing but pain and fear. Every day was constant torment and it only got worse when the darkness swallowed his world. Then, as he felt the sickness spreading inside him, someone approached. Was the torture about to begin again?
In February 2013 Indian police and an animal rescue team raided a settlement close to the country’s border with Nepal. They were there with the intention of upholding anti-animal cruelty laws that they believed were being violated. And their suspicions were justified.
Not only did they find performing bears there, but they also discovered that the animals were being prepped for illegal trafficking across the border. Thankfully, the bears were rescued before they could be smuggled away. Instead, they now came under the care of Wildlife SOS, a local animal protection organization.
In fact, four bears were rescued in total: Oreo (later renamed Michael Oreo), Truffles, Kandi and Goldie. And it was perhaps the last animal in this list who had suffered the most at the hands of his taskmaster. Indeed, Goldie’s tormented life had left him sick and suffering.
However, his torture wasn’t a recent development – he had known little else in the five years of his life. In fact, Goldie’s ordeal had begun when he was taken from his mother as a cub. He was then raised into a life of abuse, and all for the personal profit of his handler.
Like all of the animals recovered from the camp, Goldie was a sloth bear. They’re a species found only in India. And the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) classifies the bears as “vulnerable” on its endangered species list. This has been attributed primarily to hunting and environmental damage.
Indeed, Goldie’s species has been the target of poachers for hundreds of years, and not just for its meat. The bears were considered “tameable” by sloth bear handlers, who often resorted to violent methods to force the animals to perform. And it was clear that the ailing Goldie had been subjected to one such method.
Goldie had a length of rope projecting from a hole in his muzzle. According to Liz Key, communications manager at International Animal Rescue (IAR), this horrifying sight is common among performing bears. She discussed the practice during an interview with The Dodo in March 2017.
“When the bears are still tiny cubs, their captors make a hole through the top of their snout with a red-hot needle,” she explained. “Then a rope is threaded up through their nostril and out through the hole. [They make the bear] ‘dance’ by jerking on the rope.”
Furthermore, the torture continues throughout the bears’ lives, since the wound is rarely allowed to heal. “Sometimes thorns or even nails are knotted into the rope to cause even more pain,” Key added. “If the wound heals up, the handlers either reopen it or create a new one.”
Despite a law being passed in 1972 forbidding the use of dancing bears in India, the regulation hasn’t always been enforced. And so, in December 2009 Wildlife SOS together with IAR began a crusade to protect these bears. And, thankfully, their campaign was successful.
In fact, to date more than 600 bears have been rescued and sent to IAR-owned sanctuaries. These are overseen jointly by Wildlife SOS and Free the Bears Australia. Goldie, who was sent to the Agra Bear Rescue Centre, and his pals were welcome additions to that number.
The relief Goldie must have felt when the team extracted the rope from his nose would have been immense. Although the hole in his snout would leave a scar, it would heal in time. However, other wounds required a great deal more attention.
In fact, Goldie’s health was failing and he needed medical attention quickly. “Upon rescue, Goldie was alone and in agony. He was weak with hunger and crippled with pain,” read a post on the IAR Facebook page. And a physical examination revealed further shocking signs of abuse.
“Goldie’s handler [made] several attempts to knock his teeth out to make him easier to control,” said IAR communications manager Liz Key. The bear’s gums were scored with wounds as a result. What’s more, they had become so infected that they were filled with maggots. Years of torture had clearly taken their toll on Goldie.
The other big health issue Goldie had was the hardest to treat: the poor bear was blind. It’s still unclear what the exact cause of this was. It could have been due to the beatings and rope burns or perhaps was the result of malnutrition. In view of all these medical problems, the doctors immediately had to work hard to try to save Goldie’s life.
Tragically, the bear’s eyesight loss was untreatable and he would remain blind for the rest of his life. But there was some good news. “The dental team removed his rotting teeth and treated the infection in his gums,” an IAR update explained. And Goldie’s reaction was heart-melting.
“The day Goldie realised that he could eat food without feeling pain was such a joyous one,” the IAR post continued. “He took a tentative sip of his porridge. Then [he] paused for a moment with a look of astonishment on his sweet face. We will never forget that bittersweet moment.”
From then on, Goldie’s wounds – both physical and emotional – began to heal and his true personality shone through. “Goldie is very mischievous,” Key told The Dodo. “[He] loves to try to steal food from the other bears’ dens before they get to it.”
“Now, Goldie lives a happy peaceful life and is cared for by our partners Wildlife SOS,” the IAR post added. “He spends his days playing with his friends and relaxing in his hammock.” Goldie stands as a testament not only to humanity’s cruelty, but also to its kindness.