When I lived at home, dinner was signalled by someone ringing a bell that we have in our hallway. I’m still not sure whether this was just an efficient way of rounding up the household, or if my mother was trying out Pavlovian conditioning on her own children.
Ivan Pavlov developed the concept of the ‘conditioned reflex’ in 1901. He showed that that if you ring a bell at the same time that you present a dog with food, the dog will start to salivate when the bell is rung, regardless of whether food is presented.
The same conditioning technique was traditionally used in Bulgaria to train bears to dance. Cubs were separated from their mother at 7 months, and then trained by greasing their paws and placing them on a hot iron plate, which made them ‘dance’ to avoid the unbearable pain. Because music was played while they were on the plate, the bears associated the sound of music with these particular movements.
The idea of dancing bears seems very dated, but in fact the last 3 dancing bears in Bulgaria were only rescued from their owners as recently as 2007. More than 20 retired dancing bears now live in the dancing bear park in Belitsa, 180km south of Sofia, where hopefully they can ‘forget about their worries and their strife’ a la Baloo in the Jungle Book.
The oldest bear in the park Isaura died this week at the grand old age of 34, much older than the average wild bear would survive in Bulgaria’s forests (where around 800 of them roam).
If this post has depressed you a bit, here’s a happier dancing bear to cheer you up – Expedia Japan’s mascot, whose dancing exploits have their own youtube channel!