Max the Blind, Brown Bear – Working in a Bear Sanctuary in Romania
In 2011 I volunteered to work in a bear sanctuary in Romania. During my time at the Libearty Bear Sanctuary I had the pleasure of meeting some wonderful bears including Max the blind, brown bear. I also spent time with some other beautiful animals such as wolves and dogs.
The Treatment of Bears
Bears have had a rough time of it over the years. They have been traded, forced to dance in the streets, ride bicycles in circuses, kept in tiny cages for tourists to view, been hunted as trophies, used in bait baiting and had tubes attached to their gall bladder to extract bile to use in Chinese medicine. Thankfully due to lots of campaigning some of these barbaric practices are dying out but there is still lots of work to be done.
The First Bear Sanctuary
In 1993 the world’s first bear sanctuary was opened in Greece. All dancing bears and bears kept in small cages in captivity were confiscated. All the rescued bears were released into a large forest enclosure in the north of Greece. Here there was lots of space for them to move around freely, climb trees, swim and hibernate. Sanctuaries soon followed in Turkey, Thailand, India and Pakistan.
Christina Lapis had spent her life caring for animals. She ran an animal group called ‘Millions of Friends’. She was a friend of Brigitte Bardot, who had helped her to set up a dog shelter close to Christina’s home town of Brasov in Transylvania.
World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA)
In 1998 she met with a representative from the London office of the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) to discuss the stray dog problem. WASP had been investigating animal welfare issues affecting captive bears around the world, including in Romania.
The WASP representative suggested that they should go together to look at some captive bears. Tourists at a ski resort had reported seeing brown bears living in appalling conditions outside a restaurant. Christina was horrified to see 3 brown bears in tiny cages they never left with no shelter from the harsh sun or the rain and snow, fed on scraps.
These bears were named Cristi, Lydia and Viorel. They were obvious in extremely bad condition both medically and physically. It made an enormous impression on Christina and was probably the pivotal point which eventually led to the creation of the Romanian bear sanctuary.
From that day she vowed to help the captive bears of Romania and rescue them. Along with her husband Roger, she regularly visited the bears in the small cages, taking them food and checking on their welfare and vowing to one day free them.
Cristi the Bear
Cristi had been kept in a cage since he was a cub, his mother was probably murdered by hunters. The owner of the restaurant kept him in a tiny cage with iron bars and a concrete floor. Here he spent the first 10 years of his life, alone. He was then joined by Lydia and much later Viorel.
In Lake Baikal in Mongolia I saw a huge bear kept in a tiny cage, it is one of the saddest things I have seen and I remember the impression it made on me.
Christina began lobbying the government to take action against the illegal keeping of bears. The big problem though was if they were released, there was nowhere for them to go. Zoos were run down and under funded, with cages not much better than the ones the bears were in now.
WSPA had been instrumental in setting up bear sanctuaries around the world. They joined forces with Christina and Roger to set up a Romanian sanctuary. In 2005 the dream became reality and work began on the sanctuary on 69 hectares of forest in Zarnesti, 23 miles west of Brasov.
The First Bears
Work had only just begun on the sanctuary when they were forced to take their first bears. Lydia received a message to say that the restaurant in the ski resort was going to be demolished and the bears were going to be killed because the owned had nowhere to put them. Quarantine cages were quickly constructed.
Viorel had now been replaced by another bear named Odi. Cristi, Lydia and Odi became the first bears to move to the sanctuary. I can’t begin to imagine how emotional that must have been for Christina and Roger. She had kept her promise.
Cristi and Lydia were able to hibernate together on a bed of straw, for the first time in their lives. They had become inseparable. The following Spring they were able to move into their own forest enclosure complete with den, tree to climb and a fresh water pool to swim in. For the first time in 14 years Cristi was out of a cage.
Romania Joins the EU
More bears followed. The government had passed laws allowing captive bears to be confiscated and given to the sanctuary. The rescue of Baloo the bear was covered by the British press. They also sent an actor, Dominic Brunt, who plays a vet in a popular soap opera Emmerdale, to visit the centre.
In 2007 Romania joined the E.U. Zoos became subject to stringent guidelines and policies. A lot of Romanian zoos had terrible conditions and were forced to close. This left another 30 bears needing a home. Most were in an appalling state, kept in terrible conditions, not fed enough and with no veterinary care. They were starving and infected.
Many captive bears will self harm, chewing their own limbs, or pace up and down or rock side to side. I saw this in the quarantined bears who had just been rescued, it was pitiful to see. But for these bears life was about to get a lot better.
My Favourite Bears
Max, the Blind, Brown Bear
For 10 years Max had been chained to a railing, while tourists paid to have their photos taken with him. Max was also blind. It is possible that this was done deliberately to stop him running away or reacting to the flash of the cameras. He also had to wear a collar with studs on the inside so it dug into his flesh and makes his face more expressive for photos, albeit expression of pain. His claws and teeth were filed down or removed, he was sprayed with pepper spray and drugged with tranquilizers.
When he moved to the sanctuary a specialist veterinary ophthalmology team from the U.K. heard about Max’s plight and offered to help and try to restore Max’s sight. It would be the first ever eye operation performed on a bear in Romania, it is normally only performed on dogs and cats and the veterinary surgery had to get a bigger operating table.
Unfortunately, the operation wasn’t a success. Max was found to have detached retinas in both eyes, maybe a result of beatings to the head when he was a cub.
This didn’t stop Max though and after a few stumbles he soon got used to his new enclosure. He got to know every inch of it and loved to have a dip in the pool. It seemed as if Max’s other senses were heightened because of his disability. I used to visit Max every morning and evening before and after work. He always sensed I was there. He was always smiling. His teeth had been filed down but he still had a beautiful smile. He was a kind, gentle giant. Sadly Max passed away in November 2018 but he’d had a very happy retirement.
Betsy and Monica
I had to put these 2 together, they share an enclosure and act like an old married couple. They were big favourites of mine and so hilarious to watch.
Betsy had a long journey to get to the sanctuary. She was rescued from a farm in Houston, Texas, where she was kept in a small cage. Also rescued were tigers and black bears, they were quickly rehoused but there was nowhere for Betsy.
At 24 years old Betsy was an old lady, not that you would know from her appearance or attitude. Brown bears can live for 20 – 30 years but in the wild their average life expectancy is more like 6 years. This is due to the threats they face, mainly from man. Was it in her best interests to transport her all the way to Romania? They decided to take a chance and Betsy began her long journey. She settled in well, sharing an enclosure with Monica.
Monica had spent 15 years in a zoo in a small cage with dirty water to drink. Monica and Betsy became firm friends. That wasn’t to say they didn’t have their disagreements. Monica was a gentle, good-natured bear who wanted a quiet life. She didn’t always get that with Betsy.
As you can see, despite being an old lady, Betsy has a mischievous face that matched her nature, feisty and full of fun. When they had a noisy disagreement, Monica would take herself off. There was a large hole she would lie in with her head on her hands and mutter to herself. She was obviously moaning and groaning about Betsy, it was very funny to watch.
Ursula was a big ball of fur. She was unique in the sanctuary. All the other bears were brown bears, Ursula was an Asiatic black bear. At 26 she was a very old lady. Cataracts meant she was almost blind. She had spent most of her life with the Ukrainian circus. When she got too old and infirm that dumped her in a zoo where she lived in a tiny concrete cell. The zoo were unable to look after her and she would probably have been euthanised if the sanctuary hadn’t offered her a home.
She could be a bit of a grumpy old lady and spent a lot of time sleeping and eating. I thought she was fabulous.
My other firm favourite was Mura, a young bear who was 5 years old. She had come from her circus where she was made to ride a bicycle, dance and do pirouettes and dress up like a clown. One day she’d had enough and refused to perform anymore. Despite beatings, ill-treatment and bribery she still refused.
Eventually she was allowed to go to the sanctuary. Her feet were deformed and full of bruises and she was very nervous and flinched a lot. She soon adapted to life at the sanctuary and most of the time could be found up a tree.
As well as bears the sanctuary also ended up with several wolves. Initially there quite skeletal but gradually grew in weight and confidence.
Christina had also been involved in the setting up of the nearby Victory dog shelter and quite a few dogs ended up at the sanctuary. They were my welcoming committee. Every day they were waiting for me and spent time with me until they got distracted and went off on another adventure. All but one, who followed me everywhere and became my constant companion.
Libearty Bear Sanctuary
Libearty Bear Sanctuary covers 69 hectares. It is in a perfect position on top of a hill surrounded by forest. It is tranquil and peaceful with great views. It is home to other wildlife and even wild bears in not too distant forests.
Bears are omnivores and eat absolutely everything. The forest contains many of the foods that the bears would normally eat in the wild including acorns, hazelnuts, plants, blackberries, strawberries and mushrooms. Also ant nests and small animals, birds and mice. This was supplemented by food provided by the sanctuary.
Largest Brown Bear Sanctuary in the World
Libearty is the largest brown bear sanctuary in the world and has rescued 126 bears.
The bears at the sanctuary can not be released back into the wild. It is really a retirement home for brown bears.
Previously it also took some cubs. The centre worked with bear specialists around the world to see how orphaned bear cubs could be returned to the wild. This is a big problem due to hunting. There are around 6,000 brown bears in the wild in Romania today. Around 300 are hunted legally each year. Now foreign hunters can pay to hunt bears. Some are also killed illegally by poachers. Cubs normally stay with their mothers for 2 years.
A new project has been set up in the north of Romania and cubs are now sent there to be rehabilitated and released.
This is by far the biggest task. Each bear needs to eat 10kg of food each day. The sanctuary has arrangements with local supermarkets and all food past the sell by date is donated to the sanctuary. This is all food, as I’ve said bears eat anything and yes they do love honey. They also love fruit and yoghurt. Other food is purchased.
Trucks of food arrive regularly and these have to be unloaded. There is everything in there meat, fruit, dairy, vegetable and bread. All packaging must be removed and the food cut up. Sometimes it’s a bit of a mess and not for the squeamish. I once had to remove the plastic covering cucumbers – many crates of them.
Feeding time is fun. The food is thrown over the fence. The bears are expecting it and have already started to gather. Feeding time is remarkably good natured and soon ursine faces are covered in yoghurt and water-melon. Gradually the bears wander away.
Bear Sanctuary Maintenance
There’s always plenty of maintenance to be done, repairs, gardening, new enclosures to be created.
Visits by Tour Groups
Volunteers often help showing tour groups round the sanctuary. I helped with the visit of an English group. There were on a hiking tour in the Carpathian mountains, hiking village to village through forest, mountains and meadows, it sounded idyllic. They spent several hours at the sanctuary with a tour, lunch and a presentation.
I think a lot of people remember images of Romania from the fall of Ceasescu and pictures of the horrendous conditions in the orphanages. Romania is a very beautiful country with the Carpathian mountains, large sections of forest, medieval towns, stone churches and lots of castles. There is a lot of history, nature and wildlife.
The volunteers stay in an apartment in Brasov which is an extremely beautiful city. It is in the region of Transylvania. It looks like it should be nestled in the Alps, instead it’s fringed by the Carpathian mountains. It was founded by the Teutonic knights in 1211. It was the intersection of trade routes between the Ottoman Empire and Western Europe.
The apartment is only a few minutes walk from the main Council Square. This hosts many outdoor concerts and I often sat here with a beer after work watching live music and festivals. There are lots of outdoor restaurants serving excellent, inexpensive food.
The Black Church
Brasov is also famous its ‘Black Church’. It is the largest Gothic church in Romania and gets its name from the huge fire which ravaged it in 1689, the flames and smoke blackening its walls.
There are lots of hiking opportunities in the area and for the energetic you can hike up Tampa mountain.
Things to See and Do in the Area
Volunteers are looked after by a local representative. Razvan looked after us very well. I even attended a family birthday party with him. Brasov also holds it’s own version of the Oktoberfest called the Brasov Beer Festival. We also attended this, it was a lot of fun, complete with steins of beer, bratwurst and oompah music.
Razvan also took me to several local restaurants and gave me a brilliant introduction to some very tasty Romanian food.
As part of the volunteer process 2 day trips are included. Volunteers work 5 days and have 2 days free. One of the trips was to Bran Castle. We had options for the other day.
Bran Castle was built in 1378 and is best know as Dracula’s Castle. It certainly looks the part even if any links to Vlad the Impaler are tenuous. Bran Stoker never visited Romania but did base Dracula’s Castle on a description he’d been given of Bran Castle. It was home to Queen Marie of Romania and the royal family from 1920 – 1938. It is very atmospheric both inside and out, even containing a secret staircase.
We had options for our second day trip. The 3 of us were keen hikers, as was Razvan, so what better than a hike in the Carpathian mountains. It was a wonderful day and the scenery was magnificent.
Every day on our trip to the bear sanctuary we passed the impressive Rasnov Fortress. It is situated 650 feet above the town and you can hike up to the top. The fortress has been completely restored. There is a 470 foot deep well. Wooden ladders link some of the rooms and there are several secret passages.
Warning – this section of the post contains images of animal cruelty. Reader discretion is advised.
Work still needs to be done to stop some of the barbaric practices that are still happening. The following pictures show some of the issues. Some of them are upsetting but I felt they were warranted as they show the reality.
For anyone interested in being a volunteer. My volunteer programme was organised by Oyster Worldwide. You can volunteer for between 1 – 4 weeks.
More Pictures from the Bear Sanctuary