"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 activist Brigitte Bardot, founded the Dancing Bears Park in 2000 and had already taken in 22 of Bulgaria's officially registered 25 dancing bears.
Misho, Svetla, and Mila were the last three to go and according to Vier Pfoten data, they were also the last of their abused kind in the whole European Union. "I have been waiting for this day for seven years," Khalil cheered.
Most dancing bears were chronically misfed, beaten and often inebriated with liquor by their gypsy owners. Two bears at the park have already died of incurable conditions and the others are slow to recover, park workers said. "We fed them from our table -- meat, bread -- they ate what we ate," Veselin said as he tried to squeeze a cup of water between the bars of Misho's cage. The animal lifted its muzzle towards him and groaned.
"Who is doing the abuse and torture now?" Veselin lashed out at Khalil's team. But the vets said bad nutrition was what actually caused Misho to lose almost all his fur. Once the bears arrive in Belitsa, they will be fed tomatoes, apples, pears, carrots and other fruit, as well as some bread.
They will also be encouraged to search for food hidden around the park which comprises 12 hectares (30 acres) of forests and mountains, 12 caves, seven artificial ponds and a number of dens. Misho, Svetla and Mima will probably also get their first winter sleep after a couple of years in the park. But they will never be able to live outside this artificial habitat as their natural instincts have long been suppressed by captivity.