The Keeper and the Bear

Argus title : Sly showman who torments a dancing bear

Dancing bears were once a common sight in Britain, but they were outlawed years ago. The practice was considered cruel.

However, just occasionally, once in a while, such as at the Brighton Centre this week, it’s possible to spot one.

The dance itself is compelling, but it is the relationship between bear and keeper which fascinates.

The bear hates the keeper because the keeper hurts him. He chains him to a post and makes him do things he doesn’t like. The bear keeps dancing because he must, but longs for freedom to act as he chooses.

The keeper on the other hand hates the bear, because he’s dependent upon him. He needs him to continue dancing, because this brings home the bacon.

It mortifies the keeper that while he needs the bear, the beast doesn’t seem to need him. Deep down he suspects he is nothing without the animal.

Moreover, he fears the bear harbours dreams.

He looks into the bear’s bleary eyes and thinks he spies contempt there. So he burns his paws and gives sly punches to his sensitive parts. He pokes him with a stick to make the crowd laugh.

The keeper is a showman. He has the gift of the gab and can pull a crowd, no one better. But, all too often, when the bear steps out of his cage, it is to him the crowd’s eyes are drawn.

“Crowds like animals” the keeper tells himself. But he knows the bear drew most attention even in the days when the keeper performed with a snake and a running dog at his side. People just seemed to like the bear.

Now, when the keeper invites the crowd to laugh at the bear, try as he might, most people just won’t do it. He sees disgust – and even tears – in their eyes.

It’s true the crowd is wary around the bear. He growls a lot and it’s hard to predict how he’ll react. The keeper – who smiles a lot – has let it be known that the bear is moody and bad tempered. His friends have even said the bear is mad.

But the crowd is sceptical and says “That animal doesn’t seem so bad. Perhaps you should’ve stopped your dog biting him”. Then the keeper slyly jabs the bear to make him rear up and roar. Or slides the snake into the cage where he hides and hisses and spits venom in his eyes.

The bear grows impatient as he ages, less willing to do what the keeper says. He growls and pulls at the chain. Meanwhile the crowd starts to mutter “Is the keeper cruel to that animal?”.

So the keeper promises him freedom and the bear becomes quiet again and dances as required.
The keeper reassures him “I will set you free on such a day” and the bear dreams of what he will do when the chain is removed and the pokes and the burning, and the hissing and spitting stop.

As the day draws near, the bear becomes excited. He lifts his great head scenting freedom and almost seems to smell the forest and grassland where he is headed. The keeper smiles to see a spring in the bear’s step which hasn’t been there for a while.

He waits until the time has almost come and bear’s emotions are at fever pitch. He even slips the chain from off the post, for he’s enjoying this. The bear’s nostrils are full of freedom. He prepares to run.

Then the keeper laughs and tells the bear he will not let him free. Not on this occasion, not yet. It is a fine joke and teaches the bear a lesson.

The bear stands on his hind legs and roars his rage and pain. So the keeper puts his sharp stick through the ring in the bear’s nose, and hauls him down to earth. The bear howls once in agony and then lies silently. He’s been through this routine many times before.

The keeper’s wife has lips as red as blood. She laughs loud and long each time the keeper cleverly tricks the bear. She grins even more when the crowd ask when the bear will go free. “Oh that’s a long way off” she chuckles, making sure that he can hear.

When the crowd asks the keeper the same question, he smiles broadly. He’s a fine bear, he says, a bit unpredictable, but the best bear he ever had. He’ll set him free, certainly he will.

The keeper hints that delays are the bear’s fault. He’s grown unpredictable. Nobody knows quite what he’d do when free, so it wouldn’t be safe to let him go just yet.

The bear is scarred from beatings and broken promises. He dances well, no bear does it better, but he’s getting older.

A few in the crowd have taken to kicking the bear, thinking he’s a busted flush. But most want him to go free. They don’t like the keeper any more than the bear does, for it isn’t just the bear that he (and the snake and the dog) have hurt.

Some in the crowd have tried to free him. But they say that in the past, when they’ve managed to open the cage, the bear has refused to go. He waits for the keeper to honour his promise.

It frustrates the crowd – for the bear just can’t seem to understand that the keeper will never willingly set him free. They can all see he hates the bear far too much for that. He’ll break the bear, not his chains.

They fear for the animal. They know that inconvenient bears tend to die, often of a broken heart.

Many hope that one day the keeper will finally go too far for the bear and that he will rise up on his great hind legs, and roar his freedom without ceasing. And that when the keeper comes with his sharp stick and his snake and his hunting dog running at his side, the bear will bellow “No more!”, then with one mighty swipe of his paw, strike them such a blow that they will never rise up again.

One can only hope. For if the bear can’t resist the keeper, how will he ever stand up to the keeper’s Keeper in Washington?


Before animal rights campaigners contact Brighton & Hove Council I should stress that there has been no dancing bear at the Brighton Centre other than Gordon Brown, no keeper but Tony Blair and no crowd other than we the people.

Forgive the tedious whimsy. It’s been a hard week.

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