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International Animal Rescue Saving animals from suffering around the world

The world's biggest bear sanctuary - funded by IAR - celebrates its fifth birthday on Christmas Eve

Rescued bear cub enjoying the view at the Agra bear sanctuaryThe most successful bear sanctuary in the world - funded by International Animal Rescue - celebrates its 5th Anniversary on Christmas Eve this year. The Agra Bear Sanctuary in India first opened its doors on 24 December 2002 and took in six dancing bears rescued from the streets. Since then, IAR and Indian partners Wildlife SOS have rescued 421 bears, more than half of which are housed in the Agra sanctuary, not far from the Taj Mahal. The rest are cared for in two other sanctuaries set up by WSOS and IAR in central and southern India.

Christmas Eve 2007 also marks a milestone in the campaign to free the dancing bears. It is estimated that there are still 400 dancing bears on the streets of India, so together the two charities have rescued just over half of them: their aim now is to end the cruel practice completely by 2010.

Alan Knight OBE, IAR CEO, says: "We have come a long way since Christmas Eve 2002. From humble beginnings five years ago the Agra sanctuary has grown into a centre of excellence for the rescue and rehabilitation of dancing bears.

"We started with six frightened and traumatised bears that had been kept captive on the end of a rope ever since they were taken from the wild as cubs. When we removed the ropes their first reaction was bewilderment and fear. There will always be a special place in our hearts for those first bears we took in. Since those early days we have expanded the sanctuary and now we have more than 100 acres where the bears can roam freely and leave behind the pain and trauma of their lives on the streets."

Maharani the rescued bear at the Agra bear sanctuaryThe sanctuary now boasts a state-of-the-art veterinary surgery where the bears have the vicious ropes removed from their noses and they are treated for any injuries and diseases. Led by a volunteer team from the UK, pioneering dental work is also carried out on some of the bears whose teeth have been broken off to make them easier to control. The vets and keepers at Agra have become experts in the field of bear rescue and rehabilitation.

Special environmental enrichment is provided to stimulate and amuse the bears, particularly the small group of blind bears who have lost their sight through malnutrition or ferocious beatings from their handlers.

In October 2006 IAR and WSOS received a special award from the Indian government for successfully removing all the dancing bears from the tourist routes around Agra and the historic city of Fatehpur Sikri.

Kartick Satyanarayan, Co-Founder of Wildlife SOS, said: "Initially the challenge of rescuing all the bears off the streets seemed huge and many people were sceptical about how successful we would be. However, thanks to the support of the Indian Government and our partners in the UK, the campaign has gathered a real momentum and I feel there’s no stopping us."

Jumbo and Jojo enjoying their freedom at the Agra bear sanctuaryBijli bear was terribly abused by her kalandar handlers before she was rescued and it took some time to get over her fear. She had had several owners in the past and was deeply traumatised when she arrived at the sanctuary. Today she is a healthy bear with a glossy coat and has finally managed to forget the pain of the past.

Bijli’s friend Lalloo still has the ugly scars on his nose where the rope had torn through his muzzle. His kalandar owner was very scared of him and held him tightly on a short rope right up to the minute when he handed him over. Poor Lalloo’s left eye had been gouged out by one of his former handlers - a lasting reminder of his terrible past.

Alan Knight concludes: "How can we ever compensate these bears for the pain they have suffered at the hands of the human race? On 24 December this year we will certainly celebrate the success of the Agra sanctuary and of the campaign in general, but we won’t forget the bears still on the streets this Christmas, and still in need of our help. The biggest celebration will be when there are no more dancing bears in India because they are all safely in our care."