Did you know that one of the world’s most incredible wildlife habitats is right here in Europe? The Carpathian Mountains. Europe’s largest surface of virgin forest is home to 60% of the European brown bear and over 3,000 wolves. This extraordinary landscape offers shelter to these exceptionally moving and remarkable animals, our largest predators, as well as an ecosystem that requires ongoing conservation effort to retain its formidable size and beauty.
Situated in Zarnesti, in the heart of Transylvania, at the foot of the Carpathians, lies The ‘Libearty’ Bear Sanctuary and offers a blissful home to the previously abused and captive bears of Romania. Over 70 bears now find sanctuary, who previously lived in tiny rusty cages for human entertainment. Juvenile bears taken from the wild and destined to live in what would be similar to that of the (now banned) battery hen conditions in comparison.
These bears through the sheer determination of Cristina Lapis, (President of the association) her Husband Roger (the former French Honorary Consul to Romania) and a handful of friends, the ASOCIATIA MILIOANE DE PRIETENI collaborated with WSPA, creating a remarkable home that has given a new lease of life for the bears to forage, play, climb trees, and live out the remainder of their lives in the spirit in which they deserve. They are truly majestic and remarkable animals. My time here was utterly moving.
The bear sanctuary was designed with nothing more than their welfare in mind: to allow the bears to be bears, the freedom to enjoy as much of their natural habitat as possible with the caring hands of the staff behind them. Bearing in mind the Libearty Bear Sanctuary is NOT based on human interaction, much of the sanctuary is not accessed by anyone else than that of the staff who care for and feed the animals. As a volunteer I was lucky enough to become an accepted member of the team and friend, to actively be a part of the bears daily care and feeding, to understand the resourcefulness of their work.
This tranquil and magical place offered me sanctuary too. I found solace in what I often find a cruel world whilst following so many captive wildlife issues. My experience here lifted my spirits for a better future, I am inspired to follow Cristina’s aptitude and drive to not let go of hope and dedicate yourself to simply…..find a way. During one lunch break while on my way to visit Max the blind bear, I was delighted to spy Victor Watkins, up on a viewing platform. A senior advisor and investigator for the WSPA with over 30-years experience in the field of animal welfare, Victor is one of my all-time idols and someone I greatly respect for his knowledge and understanding. He initiated the concept of a bear sanctuary and has worked with animal groups around the world to highlight the exploitation of bears; gaining public and governmental support to end the cruel practices of bear dancing, baiting and the bile industry to name but a few.
When Victor and companion Liviu from AMP Bears kindly asked me to join them, I was able to introduce my passion in TOMORROWBEAR and its mission to seek all that is ethical in nature tourism and adventure. How wonderful it was to then be interviewed for the new introduction video of the Sanctuary. Looking back at the footage makes me laugh as I appear to be doing my best Sir David Attenborough impression, when I am merely mentioning the wonders of which animal ate what! Very proudly discussing the sorting of oranges, carrots, apples, strawberries, pears and prunes for the bears, how the rest is unwrapped for recycling, then the donkeys love the salad! I appeared so proud… and I was. It took a great deal of time to appreciate the nuances of a bears palate! Margaret frequently told me that all they ate in spring was meat and ice cream. I soon understood with some skilful pointing techniques, this wasn’t about handing over a tin of pedigree chum and a tub of cookie dough.
Give Victor’s book Bear Sanctuary a whirl. It’s the illustrated, inspirational story behind the Libearty Sanctuary’s creation, problems encountered and how they’ve maintained its wonderful work.
I also had the pleasure of meeting Roger Lapis, Cristina’s Husband who oversaw and project managed the construction of the sanctuary within the 70 hectares of land donated by the Mayor of Zarnesti. Roger’s previous work in engineering has assisted Paul Hammond (WSPA) in creating peaceful enclosures for the bears on demanding terrain and kept the water naturally flowing from reservoirs into pools for drinking and blissful play.One of the sanctuary’s highly important tasks is to educate the school children of Romania about their precious animals, the importance to conserve their habitat and to appreciate the nature that surrounds them. The dedicated manager Florin, carefully drives the children around the sanctuary in the tractor where they are welcomed at the education facility. They are shown videos of the work and the bears’ journey from captivity to freedom. Sile, a colleague at the sanctuary who has filmed much of the work they do, showed me the videos the children watch in the education room. He kindly passed me many tissues….. thank you Sile. After their lessons the children write special poems and sweet sentiments remembering Maya, the bear that the sanctuary is dedicated to. There is a very special wall of multi-coloured post-it notes which I had the pleasure of reading. Something that will stay with me a lifetime, I certainly will not forget Maya and the children’s heartfelt words.
Should you wish to find out more about Maya’s story, please click to read why her memory is so special in the ongoing effort to secure sanctuary for so many others.
As this is not a zoo, its not possible to expect to find daily outings on offer to tourists, on the contrary. Only organised trips booked in advance with a guide and education in mind are accepted here. However, If you are that special person, have a compelling desire for a better future for our animals, have a good will to help, expect to get mucky and prepared to work hard – then volunteering is a remarkable way to learn and be inspired. Please visit my Adventures page and go to the voluntary section to find out more. This will be updated with more news and best practices.
A bear’s spirit
So I have finally not only met a bear, but many. Some well adjusted and some who have experienced such trauma by the human hand, that they will always be broken. Jexsy the bread factory bear also known to me and my fellow volunteer Kimberley as pacey bear, moved us. Charles who is the grumpy old sweetheart living with his lone wolf friend Luna, both stole my heart. Ursula the Asiatic black bear who suffered 28 years of cramped concrete conditions in captivity, made me deeply consider the darkness she had previously felt. Mura, who was previously kept in a rusty cage only to be brought out for public humiliation while riding a bicycle dressed in children’s dresses, gave me strength when seeing her play at the sanctuary amongst friends.
Then there is Max, the blind and gentle giant. He stayed with me for a while, I hopelessly sang to him, it appeared he liked it and rocked side to side, scuffing his feet. Max cannot mix with other bears due to his lost sight, but has adjusted to his own forest, pool and shelter along with his loving care from the sanctuary team.
In the wild, I don’t believe there would ever be a time that they wouldn’t first consider your motive, what is next on your agenda. Sadly, not all humans are knowledgeable or respectful of their mostly timid nature. Neither are we of their natural environment and the importance of our top predators to remain in one of Europe’s most important ecosystems. Although much of the Carpathian region is protected, illegal logging and wood processing industries are still threatening their habitat. So in addition to leading miserable lives as human ‘entertainment’, bears’ natural environment is also being systematically destroyed.
Only when we peacefully enter wildlife strongholds such as the Carpathians, respect them, learn from them, enjoy their beauty for a while, and then leave quietly without trace, for it is their home. Will they be safe? In the meantime we can continue our education by supporting incredible institutions such as the Libearty Bear Sanctuary.
Thank you Florin, Adi, Ion, Margaret, Bebe, Gabi, Sile, Ishti, Tica, Levi, Sorin and all at ASOCIATIA MILIOANE DE PRIETENI, I am so glad to know them and proud to be considered a friend.
P.S. If you do happen to encounter a disgruntled bear on your travels: throw your backpack into the forest, hopefully smelling of a pack lunch! then walk away in the other direction. Do not scream, and do not run…. (thank you Razvan for the tip!) Please subscribe, follow us on Facebook and come back to TOMORROWBEAR to hear of some phenomenal ways to safely trek amongst this incredible place, learn about the bears habitat and in doing so raise awareness and funding for these incredible animals.
I wish to give Liviu Cioineag (Associatia Milioane De Prietini) Victor Watkins (WSPA) and Florin the manager of the sanctuary, a special thank you for recognising my passion and ability to help.