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Europe's Last Dancing Bears Sheltered After Years of Abuse

They cuddled and kissed, cried and cursed: the Stanev gypsy family parted with their three brown bears, the last dancing bears in Bulgaria and the European Union, rescued this week from years of abuse .

"The devil take you... Why are you taking our bears, our kids?" a tearful Velichka Staneva, 58, cried outside her house in the northeastern village of Getsovo. Her son, Veselin, led out his 19-year-old male bear Misho and 17-year-old female Svetla by their chains.

At the sight of the crowd of strangers, the two nuzzled close to their master, gently biting and licking his hand while he petted them. "How would I live without my bears. We have been together all our lives.

We love each other, they respect me," Veselin fumbled around, while the animals were caged and prepared for the 500-kilometre (310-mile) journey to Europe's only dancing-bear shelter, near the village of Belitsa, in southwestern Bulgaria.

Back in the courtyard, Veselin's grand-nephew Dimitar affectionately hugged and kissed his eight-year-old bear Mima while veterinarians prepared to anaesthetise her, fearing the animal's reportedly mischievous character. "What was going on here was slavery," veterinary doctor Amir Khalil, who manages the Dancing Bears Park near Belitsa, told AFP.

He said the bears were captured as cubs and forced to 'dance' on hot metal plates while their gypsy masters played music on their rebecs. Once fully trained, they were led around town on a chain fixed to their nose-ring and made to jig about to the sound of music. The three furry performers earned the living of the four-generation Stankov family and its twenty members.

Their ancestors had also raised performing bears. "The bears' nails were cut regularly and cutting one nail off a bear hurts like cutting a whole human finger without anaesthesia," Khalil said. His Austrian-based organisation Vier Pfoten (Four Paws), together with French animal rights
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