• Ayan Mehra

My Day at Wildlife SOS

As I am writing this, I am in Agra, one of the most historically rich cities in India. I came here to see some of Wildlife SOS's Elephant and Bear Rehabilitation and Conservation centers. Over Christmas, I created gift tags using my original graphite sketches and digital color elements, to raise money for Rhea. Rhea is a former circus elephant who currently resides at the Elephant Conservation and Care Center. In Agra, I spent a day with Wildlife SOS to meet the animals that they care for.

In the morning, we arrived at the Agra Bear Rescue Facility, where we were met by Shivam Rai (Education & Conservation Officer) and Roohi Narula (Press Officer). This is the largest sloth bear rescue facility in the world and has beautiful large spaces to house the bears and keep them mentally stimulated. The center also has a veterinary clinic, where bears and other small animals can be treated for any medical problems. The practice of dancing bears dates back hundreds of years and was a key source of livelihood for the Kalandar Community (a nomadic tribal community), across India. Poachers first captured a sloth bear cub from the wild and sold it to the Kalandar Community, who then trained these bears to dance as paid entertainment for humans. To train them, a hot nail was used to pierce a hole through the nostril of the bear. Then, while the wound was still raw, a four-foot-long rope was strung through this hole, and the bear was tied to a pole. Now, the freedom of this bear extended to only four feet. Further the bear keeper would forcibly wrench out the canines of the bear and castrate the males, to minimize aggression and break the animal's spirit into submission.

Wildlife SOS runs a 24-Hr rescue hotline, for people to call, if they see a mistreated wild animal. Through this hotline and other sources of intel, Wildlife SOS aims to rehabilitate any dancing bears, captive elephants, leopards straying into human settlements or reptiles/birds that are in danger. Now, thanks to Wildlife SOS, the dancing bear practice has all but been eradicated in India.

At the Agra Bear Rescue Facility (ABRF) , I got to see these bears up close, and form a personal connection with them. It was a bittersweet experience, because of the tragedies that these bears had been through, but also the fact that Wildlife SOS was able to save them from a lifetime of abuse. Although they now live with peace and freedom, some of these bears still carry the scars from their years of dancing. For instance, Roshan, one of the bears at the center, was still wary of new humans. When he saw us approaching his den, he quickly retired to a safe corner, understandably distrusting of new humans.

Roshan © Wildlife SOS

For some, the music they used to 'dance' to still rings in their years, causing them to repeatedly shake their heads in a swaying motion, which is a stereotypical sign of stress. Rangila, the largest bear at the Agra bear rehabilitation center was doing that as we approached.

Rangila looking pensive, © Wildlife SOS

On the bright side, some of the bears show spirit and recovery like Arthur who stood up on his hind legs to greet us when we approached his den. In fact he followed our trail from his enclosure and seemed curious to get to know us, just as much as we wanted to get to know him.

Arthur looking up curiously, © Wildlife SOS

The number of bears at the ABRF has drastically reduced from around 350 just ten years ago, to now only 110 bears. This is a very positive sign and testament to the fact that the practice of dancing bears has all but been eradicated through the interventions of Wildlife SOS.

After about 3 hours at the Bear Rescue Facility, we drove to the nearby Elephant Care & Conservation Center. Here we saw the former begging and circus elephants that Wildlife SOS has rescued. These elephants all had decades of abuse and neglect that have left them in a terrible condition when they arrived at Wildlife SOS. Thankfully, through both mental and physical rehabilitation, many of these elephants have shown great improvements in their personality and health.

The first elephant we saw was Suzy , the oldest of all the elephants. At 75, she has lost all 4 sets of molars, so she has to be hand fed a special mulch by her keeper to avoid starvation.

Suzy, 75 year old elephant

Next, we saw Laxmi. Laxmi was a begging elephant. She was very overweight because she would eat very unhealthy human food that was given to her. Now, she is still a very food motivated elephant, and when asked to present different parts of her body for treats, she eagerly does it just to get more treats.

Laxmi presenting her foot for examination

After that, we saw Rhea and Mia. They were both companions in the same circus. Mia was rescued first by Wildlife SOS because she was in a much worse condition than Rhea. 6 months later, they rescued Rhea. When Rhea arrived at the Elephant Care & Conservation Centre, she sniffed the air with her trunk and trumpeted excitedly as she recognized Mia's smell and call. She was so excited to be reunited with Mia, that she broke free from the unloading truck and ran to Mia's enclosure, where the two elephants hugged each other with their trunks. As Shivam Rai says, “There was not a dry eye at Wildlife SOS that day.”

My family & I with Rhea & Mia

Finally, we went on a walk with the elephants to the nearby field that adjoins the Yamuna river. Every morning and evening, the elephants at Wildlife SOS are walked to the field an