Armenian Brown Bears Moved to Sanctuary After Months of Behind-the-Scenes Efforts by Activists

Plight of animals in Gyumri Zoo highlights the broader problem of private zoos in Armenia

Earlier this month, two brown bears, Masha and Grisha were relocated from the cramped quarters in a zoo in the Armenian town of Gyumri to the Libearty Bear Sanctuary in Romania, bringing to a happy end to more than six months of efforts to rescue them.

Two brown bears in a sanctuaryPhoto courtesy of Libearty SanctuaryMasha and Grisha were set free in the training area at the Libearty sanctuary

The bears and three lions had been living a miserable life in captivity in a privately-owned zoo in Gyumri. The zoo had been featured in the British tabloid, Daily Mail, back in January as “the world’s saddest zoo.” The article, which went viral, said that the animals were starving and had been left to die by the owner who had abandoned the facility.

Sadly, the story neglected to mention that there were individuals and organizations in Armenia, including Earth Island Institute’s Armenian Environmental Network (AEN), that had been in the process of rescuing the animals, and were also working to address the broader problem of private zoos in Armenia.

Back in October 2015, the owner of the Gyumri Zoo announced that he was ill and could no longer care for the animals. Because there is no animal sanctuary in Armenia and it takes an immense amount of resources and space to care for such animals, local organizations and activists initially didn’t quite know what do. The issue was made more complicated by the fact that there are no clear animal welfare laws in place that are applicable in this case, and enforcement of the few regulations that do exist is extremely weak. The fate of the animals was not looking so good.

Although animal welfare isn’t a main focus of AEN, we have helped with such situations in Armenia in the past. For example, we worked with local and international activists and organizations in 2010 to close down a new dolphinarium in Armenia. This time too, I saw an opportunity for AEN to do what we are good at: help build local capacity in Armenia and garner international support.

The Gyumri Zoo has been criticized for years because of the miserable living conditions of its animals. The Foundation for the Preservation of Wildlife and Cultural Assets (FPWC)  made a film about the zoo in 2009 and has been working with the national government on plans to build a bear sanctuary in Armenia that would house bears confiscated from private facilities. AEN supported this initiative by creating a petition urging the government to halt the display of bears in private facilities in Armenia. Animal advocates in Armenia have also raised this issue repeatedly in the media. 

Since I had worked in the animal welfare field for many years, I reached out to my network of animal advocates, including all of the large international animal rescue organizations, seeking help for the Gyumri Zoo animals.

Brown bear in a dirty cagePhoto courtesy of Armenia Environmental NetworkGyumri Zoo is just one of many such zoos, restaurants, and hotels,in Armenia where wild animals are displayed in cages.

To my relief, an absolutely wonderful place in Romania, Libearty Sanctuary, the largest brown bear sanctuary in Europe, agreed to provide homes for the bears. Just as critical, the Brigitte Bardot Foundation (BBF), France’s leading animal protection organization, agreed to fund the relocation of the bears. Once these offers were in place, I worked with several local organizations and activists to prepare for the relocation of the bears and continue looking for a solution for the three lions.

In the following months individuals and organizations from Armenia (Yerevan and Gyumri), France, Spain, and Romania put together an impressive effort to rescue the Gyumri Zoo animals.

The BBF and a private donor provided funds for feeding the animals while this transition was being worked out. A team of dedicated volunteers in Gyumri took on the responsibility of buying the food and feeding the animals. Meanwhile, we managed to thwart multiple efforts by individuals interested in buying the lions for private display.

The situation was sensitive. We wanted to ensure that the zoo owner would keep his word and give up the animals, and that we could secure the necessary permits needed to transfer the bears and lions to sanctuaries. We also had to make sure that we could keep the animals fed and healthy until their relocation.

Not all of our activities were made public and a lot of work was being done behind the scenes in order to respect the privacy of those involved and to keep the situation from becoming too publicized, which has impeded such rescue operations in other countries in the past.

As I mentioned earlier, the situation at Gyumri Zoo is part of a broader and more complicated problem that the Daily Mail article didn’t touch upon. The zoo is just one of many such facilities in Armenia displaying wild animals. Wild animals are captured or bred in captivity and kept in cages in many privately owned facilities such as zoos, restaurants, and hotels, etc. as an attraction.

According to some estimates, there are more than 60 bears in captivity in private facilities in Armenia alone. Cubs are often given away as gifts or sold — not to mention the unknown numbers of “pet” wild cats and primates kept in homes in Armenia. For the past few years, several news reports have highlighted Armenia’s involvement in the primate trade. This issue is, of course, not unique to Armenia. There are people and facilities all over the world, including the United States, that keep wild and exotic animals as either pets or customer attractions.

AEN is committed to working with local and international partners to ensure that the Armenian government continues to feel the pressure to end such captive wild animal displays.

The obvious bright side of the Daily Mail article is that more people are now aware of this issue in Armenia. Because the Daily Mail article implied that no one in Armenia was doing anything to help the animals, many individuals and international organizations saw the situation as “hopeless and urgent” and jumped in to help. Though help was obviously appreciated, it created a disorganized frenzy and actually threatened the work we had set in motion. Impromptu fundraising pages were created and some organizations/individuals spread misinformation.

Although we were doing everything we could to help the animals, many concerned individuals from around the world, who did not understand how difficult and delicate the process of rescuing and relocating five large wild animals is, sent us aggressive e-mails and Facebook messages. AEN and others organizations and individuals working on the issue had to work extra hard to keep the rescue efforts from unraveling.

This international pressure would have been much more beneficial had it been directed towards the Armenian government. What is needed is governmental action to shut down these private facilities and ensure the relocation of the animals to appropriate facilities, which does not happen overnight. As many are aware, it’s often the oligarchs with high-level connections that are the individuals guilty of buying, trading, selling, and displaying wild animals. Therefore, getting true government support is a huge battle.

Following the media attention, the Ministry of Nature Protection of Armenia has established a government-supported Committee for the Protection of Captive Animals in Armenia to create limits and requirements for private zoos. It’s critical that we continue to work together to maintain the pressure on the Armenian government to ensure positive lasting change for captive wild animals in Armenia.

Meanwhile, the Worldwide Veterinary Service is working with the Foundation for the Preservation of Wildlife and Cultural Assets to build a rescue and rehabilitation center for the lions. Like the bears, the lions will be moved to Peak Wildlife Park in the United Kingdom after rehabilitation.

Watch Masha and Grisha take their first steps on the grass.


How You Can Help

There are many ways to help efforts to stop the practice of keeping wild animals in privately owned facilities in Armenia:

– Sign the petition to the Armenian government encouraging officials to halt the capture of brown bears from the wild in Armenia.

– Report any caged wild animal you see in a private facility in Armenia to the Armenian Environmental Network.

– Support the Libearty Bear Sanctuary, which will be caring for the two bears from Gyumri for the rest of their lives.

– Support the efforts of FPWC to build a bear sanctuary in Armenia (indicate that your donation is for the bear sanctuary).

– Donate to WVS to help with the rehabilitation and relocation costs for the lions (indicate that your donation is for the Gyumri lions).

And as a general rule, never support a private establishment (zoo, restaurant, etc.) that displays wild animals in any country.

Keep yourself updated by following AEN’s Facebook page.

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