We climbed up to a treetop observation platform to watch them from afar.
Lunch — the only ‘official’ meal of the day was over. Of course, they “snack” on wild berries and green vegetation in the forested area whenever they fancy. Now, time for a cool dip in a pond.
“They’re like humans. They have emotions, they can fight, and they hug,” says Paula Ciotlos, our guide, and an employee of the sanctuary. It’s not the first time her voice becomes tender and her eyes brighten up when she talks about these giant cuties.
We had to agree with her while watching the furry giants goofing around in the water. Who knew that bears could move so fast, and love water so much?
The rescued bears roam freely here; they can swim in the water pools, climb the trees, and hibernate in dens. They are fed regularly, cured if necessary, and… loved immensely. Sadly, not all bears in Romania and Europe are that lucky.
The story of the Libearty Bear Sanctuary in Zărnești, Romania, goes back to 1998, when Christina Lapis, the current president of the center, made saving the brown bears from misery in Romania her life mission.
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This happened after Mrs. Lapis saw a couple of cubs caged in front of a local restaurant to attract the customers. Since then, Mrs. Lapis wanted not only to save all bears in captivity in Romania, but also to bring awareness about the issue to the public and authorities, with a goal to terminate the cruelty and illegal exploitation of bears in the country.
In the past, many cubs were seized from the wild, and used as pets or as an attraction in restaurants, cafes, or petrol stations; Wild souls chained in an urban space. The bears were kept in small cages with barely any space to move. This obviously hindered their natural growth and caused severe traumas that resulted in constant restless movement in small circles once they left the cages.
How far can we humans go to “entertain” ourselves?
A big dream for giant mammals
A few years after the heartbreaking encounter with the cubs, Christina Lapis took her vision to save the brown bears in Romania to another level. She established a place where the bears would live after they rescued them from zoos, circuses, and private illegal owners.
That’s how the Libearty Bear Sanctuary was born with tremendous support from the Romanian animal protection group, Asociatia Milioane de Prieteni (Millions of Friends) that manages the sanctuary. The center also exists thanks to the World Society for the Protection of Animals, which trained the staff, designed the sanctuary, and helped them financially, too.
In 2005, the mayor of Zărnești supported Christina’s idea and donated the land of 70 hectares (160 acres) in the Carpathian Mountains. At the moment, there are 85 rescued bears (watch this video of two newly rescued bears from Albania and their first steps on the grass!) and two sweet cubs found recently abandoned in the wild.
There are CCTV cameras that monitor the bears in the oak and hazel forest, and they also help to keep an eye on visitors.
By creating the biggest rescue center for brown bears in Europe, they give a second chance to the animals, but they also are helping to end a vicious cycle in which the authorities were “trapped.” They were eager to help, but at the same time they couldn’t take any action. Because despite the fact that keeping bears in captivity was illegal in Romania, there was also no place to accommodate the rescued animals, until the sanctuary near Zărnești was built.
A new beginning
When Romania joined EU in 2007, the zoos had to follow new standards. Many of them failed, and their bears were sentenced to be killed. Fortunately, the rescue team of the bear shelter could save their lives.
Talking about new beginnings, the sanctuary sterilizes all newcomers, and there are no cubs born in the center. “Why would we let someone to be born already in prison?”,justifies Paula. Makes sense.
When they rescue cubs younger than six months, they go first to a re-integration center that is a part of the sanctuary. If they are older, it’s too late to do it, as they are used to being fed by humans (their former private owners) and it would be impossible to teach them to look for the food independently.
Education is the key
Another great mission the sanctuary focuses on, is education of local children. They help schools to organise trips to the sanctuary, as well as to the zoos so kids can see the difference in the treatment of the animals.
One of the highlights of the educational program is a real North American Wigwam located in the center that serves as a classroom!
How to visit Libearty Bear Sanctuary in Zărnești
The sanctuary opened its door for tourists only in May 2014. “We didn’t intend to create “an exhibition center” here. This place is a home to bears who were rescued from cruel conditions, and they deserve peace and quiet,” explains Paula.
Even though the center is open to public now, the time of visiting hours is limited.
Until the 30th of April 2016, you can visit the Libearty sanctuary at 10.00 o’clock only if there are at least 10 visitors. At 11.00 and 12.00 o’clock the sanctuary can be visited no matter the number of visitors.
The summer program begins on the 1st of May and will last till the 31st of October. The entries during this period will be from 9:00, 10:00 and 11:00 from Tuesday to Sunday.
Entrance fee: 40 lei ($10 USD or 9 €/ adult).
If you plan to visit the sanctuary in a group of more than 15 people, please contact the office via phone (+40 268 471 202) or via email: [email protected] or [email protected]
For more details, please visit this website.
During your visit, a specialized guide will accompany you and will explain the history and concept of the sanctuary, as well as tell you the stories of the bears. We were really touched by the story of Maya, the bear caged in a hotel near Bran castle. She suffered from severe depression so much that she started to eat her own paws…
Or the story of Betsy from a run-down circus in Texas, who was rescued by the Romanian team after a call from a traveler— Betsy arrived to Zărnești in terrible condition after she had been fed fast food for all her life.
“But will I see the bears?” you might ask. I understand your concerns. Yes, the forested area is HUGE and the bears roam around freely, which means it’s only up to them whether they stay inside the forest or come closer to the fences to say “hi.”
It took us a couple of hours to visit the whole center, and we were able to encounter many of the bears. We saw them sleeping, walking around, eating, swimming, running… Apart from the massive forested area you’ll be able to observe the rescued bears from a treetop observation platform, visit a teddy bear museum, take a ride on a “bear-train,” or you can visit a small church that will hold animal blessings.
How to help the Libearty Bear Sanctuary?
* Visit the center
By doing this, your money will be used to create a safe and loving home for the animals. Moreover, you’ll support the local community that does their best to make living in sustainable way, which is pretty hard in this area of Romania.
The sanctuary welcomes 3-4 volunteers every summer. You can help them with preparing food for the bears, or give them a hand in the Dog Shelter that is part of the sanctuary. Please, find more information and contact details here.
* Buy a book
In the book Bear Sanctuary you can read the full story of the sanctuary, as well as the stories of the bears and details about how the bears are treated in the center.
* Adopt a bear
The bears in the sanctuary need 1.5 tons of food everyday. The costs to cover food and other necessary expenses are about 40.000 euros/month. You can help the sanctuary by donating 5 euros/month or more. Please visit this page for more details.
And last but not least, help spread the word and tell your friends about a paradise, where bears tortured for years are reborn. The happy furry folks in Zărnești will be eternally grateful for that.
Do you know about any other bear sanctuaries in the world? Please, share your tips in the comment below!