Wednesday, July 7, 2010
Les Montreurs d'Ours - or Bear Trainers
The "montreur d'ours" — literally, "displayer of bears", were men who trained a bear and took it from town to town, charging the public to see it perform tricks. It was an occupation peculiar to the Alet and Garbet valleys of Ariège (France). As elsewhere in the Pyrenees, these two valleys were once highly populated. Around 1850 there were up to 10 000 inhabitants; today there are 1500. Living conditions were very difficult and traditionally a significant portion of the population, mainly men, would leave to work temporarily in other regions of France and in Spain. During the 18th century many became "colporteurs" --itinerant peddlars--returning to their villages in the spring to replenish their stocks.
It was in Ustou, at the end of the 18th century, that the first montreurs d'ours appeared in the Pyrenees. This practice originated with gypsies and bohemians in the Middle Ages throughout Europe. One probably gave the idea to an inhabitant of Ustou to train bear cubs captured in the surrounding mountains. Later this activity died out in Ustou but expanded greatly in the Garbet valley.
From the middle of the 19th century until World War I, more than 200 montreurs d'ours left the villages of Oust, Ercé and Aulus to travel the world. The first showed their bears in France and neighboring countries. Later, some traveled to the United Kingdom, then to Canada, the United States and throughout North and South America.
In the beginning the bear cubs were caught in the Pyrenees. However, because the mother bear was killed in order to get the cub, this activity decimated the bear population. Eventually montreurs d'ours had to travel to Marseille, where animal traders sold cubs from the Balkans.
By the early 20th century the number of montreurs d'ours began to diminish. World War I hastened the demise of this occupation in the Pyrenees, though it never completely disappeared among the gypsies and bohemians.