ZARNESTI // Circus bear Mura wound up in the world’s biggest brown bear sanctuary in the heart of Romania’s Carpathian Mountains after refusing to perform any longer, following five years of unbearable abuse.
Caged, beaten and starved by their owners, 80 traumatised bears have been rescued from captivity and taken in to the “Libearty” sanctuary to recover, but the process can be slow.
Mura, for instance, instinctively begins to dance at mealtimes. “She’s still afraid she won’t be fed if she doesn’t dance,” says Libearty guide Paula Ciotlos.
After doing tricks for the Globus circus in Bucharest for five years, Mura one day obstinately refused to keep performing and was finally handed over to the sanctuary by her owner.
The 69 hectare complex was established in 2005, inspired by the plight of Maia, a self-mutilating bear who hurt herself in protest against the cruel conditions she was kept in, and who eventually died of her wounds.
The first two bears at the sanctuary were Lidia and Cristi, who for seven years were kept in the same small pen – measuring a mere five square metres – by a restaurant, whose clients amused themselves by giving the animals beer.
Their paws still bear traces of cuts from the glass bottles.
All of the bears in the sanctuary have a “sad but educational” story, says Ms Ciotlos.
By opening its doors to tourists for three hours every day, the sanctuary hopes that people will gain a new perspective on animals in captivity.
British tourist John Hancock is one of the converted. He says he “no longer wants” to see animals at the zoo after seeing some of the effects of captivity first hand.
“This is the ideal environment for the bears,” says Mr Hancock. “They enjoy everything they need here.”
The land was donated by the city of Zarnesti, and has ample forest and ponds for the bears, who are fed once a day by staff.
They can never re-enter the wild because they’ve lost many of their instincts and “would never be able to survive alone in the forest, fight for a female, or for food”, says Ms Ciotlos.
So far, two million euros (Dh8m) have been invested in the sanctuary, which welcomed more than 20,000 tourists in 2014 – about 60 per cent of them foreigners.
Brown bears are common in Romania, which is home to around 6,000 of the animals. In mountainous areas, female bears and their cubs often wander into villages to scavenge for food in trash bins.
In another groundbreaking project, cubs separated from their mothers due to accident or human action are being lodged in a “nursery” in the Hasmas mountains, about 200 kilometres north of Zarnesti.
“A cub is very fragile and vulnerable until the age of two or three,” says the project’s founder and animal lover Leonardo Bereczky.
He says the animals are protected but also encouraged to fend for themselves, especially to forage for food.
“It is very important that the cubs grow up far from human beings” before resuming a life in the wild, he says, adding that so far about 100 cubs have been successfully released.
Mr Bereczky says that the main threats for the bears is the growing infiltration of man into their habitat, and deforestation.
Meanwhile, Ms Ciotlos says that some people also want to turn the animals into pets.
Between 1990 and 2000 a lot of restaurants in the Carpathian region displayed caged bears to attract tourists, she says, but those establishments are becoming more rare because Romania has passed more restrictive laws in hopes of curbing abuse.
“Now there are no more than a dozen bears waiting to be rescued in Romania,” she adds.
* Agence France-Presse