Strawberries and swims: rescued dancing bears settle down in northern Jordan

Thanks in part to Jordan's Princess Alia and Cher, bears Suzie and Bubloo find leisure and space after lifetime of confinement and torture

Life is looking up for two former dancing bears rescued from a zoo in Pakistan after moving into their new homes in northern Jordan.

The brown Himalayan bears, Suzie and Bubloo, took up residence around 10 days ago at Al Mawa Wildlife Reserve, in a lightly forested area near the Roman city of Jerash.

“It was the first time they touched a tree,” said Saif Rwashdeh, chief caretaker at the sanctuary. “They were very sad, and very nervous.”

It took the intervention of the singer Cher and an animal-loving member of Jordan’s royal family to bring the two bears to the sanctuary. Their plight came to light as Cher managed to free an elephant kept at the same zoo in Islamabad and send him to a sanctuary in Cambodia.

Kaavan, 36, gained international fame as “the world’s loneliest elephant” after his mate died in 2012.

The bears grew less shy within days of arriving at the park and are eating well and no longer afraid to explore their new habitat, Mr Rwashdeh said as he watched them from behind a fence.

“They need more time but they will be great. They lived a very bad life in the zoo.”

Bears without teeth

Suzie and Bubloo arrived in Jordan looking shell-shocked as their cages were offloaded from a passenger plane into the cargo terminal of Amman airport.

They spent four months in quarantine on the outskirts of the capital as space was prepared for each of them in Jerash, among oak and pine trees 1,000 metres above sea level.

Each bear has about a hectare to roam in, a swimming pool and a dark room to escape the sun – with summer on its way, daytime temperatures are already above 30°C.

Without teeth, they are being fed mostly bananas, strawberries, watermelons, oranges and apples, and vegetables.

Both are approaching 20, considered about 60 to 70 per cent of the normal life expectancy for bears.

But abuse has marked their lives and both arrived in Jordan with psychological problems.

They lost their teeth grinding inedible objects, a result of stress and having been poorly fed in their cages in Pakistan. They were also probably beaten during their time as dancing bears, Mr Rwashdeh said.

Suzie, who is more golden brown that Bubloo, has lung and skin tumours but could still live for years, he added.

“Suzie has so many problems,” he said. “So far she is good. She eats. She is active and she moves around. This means she does not feel pain.”

Himalayan brown bear Bubloo looks out from his newhome at the Al Mawa sanctuary near Jerash in northern Jordan. Amy McConaghy / The National
Himalayan brown bear Bubloo looks out from his new home at the Al Mawa sanctuary near Jerash in northern Jordan. Amy McConaghy / The National

Royal reprieve

The Al Mawa sanctuary’s very first resident was a Syrian brown bear called Balou.

Born in 2002, Balou was kept at a Jordanian private zoo where he was beaten regularly, before being rescued by Princess Alia, elder half-sister of Jordan’s King Abdullah, and taken into the royal stables near Amman.

Princess Alia set up the Al Mawa sanctuary in 2012 with the help of Four Paws, the international animal welfare group based in Vienna that was involved in the rescue of Kaavan, Suzie and Bubloo.

Unlike Bubloo, Balou lives with a partner – Lula, a younger bear rescued from a zoo in Mosul in 2018. The first anniversary of their relationship was last week, but they will not have cubs, Mr Rwashdeh said.

All male animals in the sanctuary are castrated or vasectomised.

A falling out

Suzie and Bubloo were also once a couple. They lived together for years and had a cub before Bubloo started hitting Suzie and they had to be separated.

Mr Rwashdeh said no one knows what happened to the cub, but it probably died.

“Good boy Bubloo,” he called as he threw pieces of fruit over the fence, but far from Bubloo to encourage the bear to move and use his sense of smell weakened by being caged.

Bubloo found them and used his paws to peel off the skin.

“He is very friendly. I love him,” Mr Rwashdeh said. Bubloo is more active than Suzie and his gait is more self-assured.

“She is still shy and not active like Bubloo,” he said. “She needs time to feel at peace”

Possible reconciliation

Mr Rwashdeh said it was not entirely Bubloo’s fault that he attacked Suzie. Their cub had probably been kept with them for too long in a very confined space, making Bubloo nervous.

But Suzie is gutsy, he said. “Sometimes she likes to fight with her neighbours” – Aus, Shugaa and Hadi, three male brown Syrian bears living together in the next enclosure.

The sanctuary has more than 20 animals, comprising lions, tigers, bears and hyena, and spaces are being prepared to receive more in the next few months.

Most of the residents were rescued from Jordan and surrounding countries. Mr Rwashdeh’s favourites, two Bengal tigers, Tash and Sky, were confiscated in 2013 as they were being smuggled across the Jordan-Saudi border.

Sanctuary manager Mustafa Khraisat did not rule out attempts to reconcile Suzie and Bubloo in the future.

But they would need to “settle down completely” in their separate spaces, and Suzie’s health situation needs to remain stable.

“We plan to do some socialising and integration for both of them, if they would like that to happen,” he said.

Updated: April 27, 2021 11:53 AM

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