Bearly surviving

Boylston woman helps international agency rescue `dancing’ bears in India
By Pamela H. Sacks



Laurence Van Atten sat on the living room couch in her Boylston home under a whimsical drawing of famous primate researcher Jane Goodall and a chimpanzee making faces at each other.

“She’s always been my biggest role model,” Van Atten said with a broad smile as her Lab mix, Bailey, flopped his big paw on her lap.

Van Atten adopted Bailey from the Sterling Animal Shelter, where she is a volunteer. She and her boyfriend, James Holyoak, have another Lab mix, a puppy named Velma. Van Atten had brought Velma home as a foster dog to work on her behavior. The scrawny black puppy was so scared of people that she was unadoptable.

“She was so frightened I couldn’t even be in the same room with her,” Van Atten said. “She would run away and hide. Eventually, she crept up so slowly and kissed me on the cheek. I said, `Oh, that’s it.’”

Van Atten’s natural ability with canines is obvious. The drawing of Goodall, however, is an indication of her dedication to another aspect of animal welfare. Van Atten is a wildlife conservationist who has been appointed the first United States development coordinator for a British organization called International Animal Rescue.

The 28-year-old blonde with sparkling gray-blue eyes was offered the job after spending three months in northern India conducting animal behavior research at an IAR sanctuary for rescued sloth bears. The animals had been forced by cruel methods to “dance” as entertainment for tourists. The Kalandar gypsies of India have used the bears to earn their keep since the 16th century, handing the practice down from one generation to the next. Van Atten first learned about dancing bears when she saw a documentary on their plight.

Van Atten, a graduate of Shrewsbury High School and University of Massachusetts at Amherst, was working on a master’s degree in animal welfare and behavior at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland when she saw the film. She knew immediately that she wanted to write her thesis on the bears. She spent last March, April and May at the IAR sanctuary, which is in Agra, a few miles from the Taj Mahal, introducing ways in which to enrich the environment for the severely traumatized bears.

Alan Knight, chief executive of the IAR, said in an e-mail that Van Atten’s work on behalf of the bears was invaluable.
“Laurence took on the difficult task of stimulating their natural behavior and encouraging them to explore and investigate the `toys’ she provided,” Knight wrote. “Serious malnutrition has caused some of the bears to go blind, and it was an even greater challenge to bring them out of their isolation and develop their curiosity and interest in their surroundings.”
Van Atten has been back in the U.S. since October, working from her home office to raise awareness about the bears and other wildlife suffering at the hands of humans. She delivers talks and presents slide shows at schools and before civic organizations. She has filmed an introduction to the documentary that inspired her work, which is titled “Free the Bears.” The film was aired on the Shrewsbury cable station in February and will be shown again in the next couple of months. It will be broadcast this month on cable stations in Northboro and Worcester.
The story Van Atten tells is difficult to hear.
Sloth bears, an endangered species, are captured by poachers when they are cubs and sold on the black market for the dancing trade. A cub’s teeth are knocked out with an iron bar and its claws are pulled, making it defenseless. A hole is made through the muzzle with a hot poker, and a rope is passed through the hole and out of the nostril. The bears are made to “dance” by yanking the ropes and hitting the feet. “They dance to relieve the pain,” Van Atten said.
The practice was outlawed in India in 1972, but for many years the prohibition was not enforced because there was no place to put the rescued bears. IAR estimates that since 2002, it has saved 355 bears that now reside at three rescue centers. But approximately 600 bears remain on the streets, and 100 cubs are still poached each year
“To be honest, British and American tourists support it,” Van Atten said, recalling the time she and her colleagues asked visitors not to pay for the inhumane entertainment. The tourists ignored their pleas, saying they wanted to see the bears dance.
The 17-acre sanctuary at which Van Atten conducted her research currently holds 120 bears. Another 145 acres have been purchased, but still have to be converted to habitat appropriate for the bears. The Kalandars sometimes surrender their bears, because they cannot pay the hefty fine if the animal is confiscated.
“We have bears waiting at the gate,” Van Atten said. “We have no place to put them. We need to put up fencing and dig drainage and build pools. It’s all so expensive. It costs $15,000 for an enclosure that would house 10 bears.”
The bears arrive at the sanctuaries malnourished and in pain and misery. Their teeth below the gum line are abscessed because the roots were not pulled. Two British dentists donate time each year to perform root canals. “They work practically around the clock,” Van Atten said.
As she talked about the bears, Van Atten opened an album filled with photos taken while she was in Agra. She pointed to a picture of a small bear named Babu.
“He was beaten into blindness, and he would just sway all day,” she said.
Van Atten wanted to experiment with promoting the bears’ natural behaviors. She devised honey logs and wobble trees, which simulate a tree laden with ripe fruit. Knight wrote that after sniffing around a wobble tree, “one bear stood on his hind legs and started to push the tree vigorously, resulting in a shower of treats.”
“It’s amazing to see them after just a week at the sanctuary,” Van Atten said. “Their coats become glossy again. They have spent their lives on a 4-foot rope being tortured. They are splashing around and climbing trees.”
Van Atten’s innovations are so successful that they have been replicated at the other IAR sanctuaries, according to Knight.
“We now have a comprehensive environmental enrichment protocol at our sanctuaries in the north and south of India,” Knight wrote.
At first, Van Atten was angry at the Kalandars for their treatment of the bears. But when she saw the extreme poverty in which they live and the lack of opportunity, she said, she understood why the custom has continued. To stop the cycle, IAR is working with the Kalandars to develop other ways for them to make a living.
It is particularly satisfying to assist in rescuing the sloth bears, Van Atten said, because an end to their suffering is in sight.
“There aren’t that many animal projects where that’s the case,” she said. “It’s such a privilege for me to have a hand in ending that practice.”