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Tajiks Want Statue Immortalizing 'Bear Man Of Dushanbe'

Talabshoh Sheikhov and Maria entertained the people of Dushanbe for 20 years.
Talabshoh Sheikhov and Maria entertained the people of Dushanbe for 20 years.

He was known as the Bear Man of Dushanbe.

An old man with a bushy white beard and his bear, Maria, were a regular fixture in the Tajik capital for the over 20 years, strolling along streets, posing for photos, even riding public transport.

Now Tajik social media users want to raise money to build a statue of "bear man" Talabshoh Sheikhov and Maria, both of whom died in 2013.

"I remember them. During my student years, I would go to the city center just to see them. It's a great idea to put up a statue of them because we want our children also to know about those two unusual and special Dushanbe residents," wrote Facebook user Khosiyat Nazarali.

"Yes, they were the calling card of Dushanbe. I support the fundraising idea!" wrote Alexey Loginovsky.

Hundreds of others offered their support, too.

In interviews with Tajik media over the years, Sheikhov said he first saw Maria -- then a six-week-old cub -- at a neighbor's house in the early 1990s.

The neighbor wanted to sell the cub, whose mother was killed by hunters. Sheikhov traded a goat for the cub and took her home.

He named her Maria, after the heroine of a Mexican soap opera that was wildly popular on a Russian television channel at the time.

Maria was raised with bottle milk and food Sheikhov's "other 13 children" shared in their modest house in Yalash, a village in Tajikistan's eastern Jirgatol district.

But Maria's ever-growing appetite soon became increasingly unaffordable for her master, who affectionately called the bear "my daughter."

In one interview, Sheikhov said the bear would eat 10-12 kilograms of food a day.

Sheikhov left the village and his family behind and settled with Maria in Dushanbe, where he put the bear to work to help foot the bill.

Residents say she would entertain children with her forward rolls and give them rides on her back under the watchful eyes of her master, who kept Maria on a leash.

The duo become well-known in Dushanbe, where they could be seen riding a bus, sharing a meal, or carefully crossing a busy street.

Sheikhov once told media that he was even invited to entertain President Emomali Rahmon at a party celebrating the traditional Tajik new year, Navruz. He said the president paid $200.

Not everyone was charmed, however: where some people saw fun and frolic, others saw animal cruelty.

"Poor animal. I remember how he would pull her on a leash," recalled Facebook user Lesya Marenkova.

Sheikhov was in his 80s when he died. Maria died two months later.

"We definitely need to put a statue of them," Tahmina Safarova wrote on Facebook. "It's important to remember those who gave so much happiness and fun to people."

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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the region. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate and reintegrate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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