A Sanctuary for Lost Bears

At the world's largest shelter for brown bears, Romanian animal welfare advocates rehabilitate captive animals and push to change public attitudes towards wildlife.

The epiphany came for Cristina Lapis as Maya lay dying in her arms. Abused, starved, ignored, deprived of companionship and stimulation her entire life, Maya had lost hope and the will to live, in spite of Lapis’ promises to save her friend.

photo of LiBearty Bear Sanctuary
LiBearty is the largest brown bear sanctuary in the world in terms of both size and number of rescued bears. Photo by Bogdan Tapu.

Lapis embraced the weak, fur-swathed body and held Maya close as the brown bear slipped away. That was the beginning of what has become the world’s largest sanctuary for brown bears, LiBearty Sanctuary, located in Zărneşti, Romania. It is largest in both area (69 hectares) and number of residents (currently 80 bears, plus a few deer and wolves).

The European brown bear (Ursus arctos arctos) was once found in significant numbers across the continent. Today it is extinct in Britain and Ireland and is increasingly rare elsewhere. Its existence is threatened both by lack of food due to reduced habitats and by overzealous hunters.

Since Romania, which is home to the largest remaining virgin forest on the continent, hosts 60 percent of the 17,000 wild brown bears remaining in Europe, the location of the sanctuary makes sense. Zărnești is in the heart of the Carpathian Mountains, the site of longstanding myths. Yet the backstories of the sanctuary’s shaggy residents are more unbelievable than Bram Stoker’s tales of Transylvanian vampires. Deliberate blinding, forced alcoholism, involuntary drug addiction, and calculated maiming — not to mention orphans sold into slavery — are oft-told tales at LiBearty Sanctuary.

Maya, the inspiration for the sanctuary, comes with one such tale. Maya was a young brown bear caged in the yard of a hotel near Bran Castle when Lapis, a Romanian journalist and animal welfare activist originally from Brașov (about 30 kilometers northeast of Zărnești), discovered her in 1998. Lapis and her husband Roger, France’s honorary consul to Romania, had established the Millions of Friends Association (AMP) a year earlier, focusing on the rescue of stray dogs. AMP is the oldest animal welfare NGO in the country, and today looks after more than 1,000 dogs in several shelters.

Although her focus was canines, Lapis couldn’t ignore the dirty, starving and all-but-abandoned bear trapped in the hotel courtyard. Maya had no regular food, no care, no stimulation, only the jeering of tourists and the occasional beer bottles thrown at her or given to her to drink. Lapis recalls her “boundless rage against the people who could condemn such an animal to a slow and painful death like this.”

For the following four years, Lapis, her husband, and friends traveled 100 miles every day to bring food, water, and companionship to the neglected bear. Results were initially promising: “We were able to improve her health and lift her spirits…. Soon she began to recognize the sound of our car and would stand up to greet us when we arrived.” The problem was that Maya had nowhere to go. Romanian zoos at that time didn’t offer an improvement in terms of space or cleanliness. There were no shelters for large wild animals, and there wouldn’t have been money to maintain them, had they existed.

Lapis began developing the idea of a shelter specifically for bears, but she needed time, money, political permits, and public support. Over the course of the next four years, as Lapis developed her project, and battled political resistance and public apathy, time ran out for Maya. The bear became depressed, as often happens with animals in captivity, and self-mutilated her right paw, ripping her flesh to the bone. She lost her appetite and the will to live. She died literally in the arms of Cristina Lapis, as the latter sat with her in the cage, rocking her and stroking her fur, on March 11, 2002. Over the bear’s stiffening body, Lapis vowed that she would create a sanctuary for other bears so that they would not suffer a similar fate.

LiBearty Sanctuary opened its doors in 2006, the culmination of efforts by AMP and the World Society for the Protection of Animals, with the help of benefactors including the Brigitte Bardot Foundation and Vets United of Germany. That same year, the private ownership of brown bears taken from the wild was made illegal in Romania.

The town of Zărnești gave AMP a 49-year lease on its land, with the support of the then-mayor. The fortunes of the sanctuary depend on how the political wind blows at City Hall. Some constituents are afraid of the bears, in spite of double electric fences and elaborate security measures at the sanctuary. Some locals don’t want tourists who come to tour the site; others welcome visitors and the money they may spend.

And so far, LiBearty has proved to be quite an attraction. In 2014 the sanctuary welcomed 21,000 visitors during its first full year as a visiting center, offering up to three or more tours a day. Almost half of the visitors are Romanian, either school children or tourists coming in July and August. The rest are a mix of visitors, including British, Germans, French, Australians, and Israelis, but very few Americans.

Regularly-scheduled one-hour tours begin with a video about the sanctuary, including the story of its founding. Then visitors follow a multi-lingual guide through the property, from one enclosure to another, explaining the history of its occupants.

All the bears have stories that exemplify the problems of wildlife today.

Florentina was only a cub when her mother was killed and she was captured and brought to a small zoo in Bucharest. She lacked stimulation, and over 18 years, she grew too big for her cage. She became depressed and refused to eat. Thinking she was about to die, her owner brought her to the sanctuary in 2008. With trees to climb, other bears to socialize with, and lots of greenery, Florentina recovered and has flourished.

Graeme and his brother were orphaned by hunters in 1994. They killed the cubs’ mother for sport, then locked the two brothers in a small cage to serve as attractions for visitors to a mountain mining company. As mining declined and the company lacked for resources, the growing cubs fought for what little food came their way, and Graeme was blinded in one eye. A zoo took him away to pace for years in a wire enclosure, while his brother was abandoned to starve to death in his tiny cage at the mining site. Graeme came to LiBearty in 2013; after 21 years of suffering, he now enjoys open spaces ponds, and grass, and an ursine companion from his zoo days.

Over the years, Max’s story has touched more visitors than any other. Born in 1997 and orphaned soon after, Max was chained near Bran Castle, a national monument in Romania, so visitors could pay to have their pictures taken with him. To make sure he wouldn’t cause problems as he grew, Max was deliberately blinded and his sharp canine teeth and claws were cut off. Pepper spray was sprayed into his nose to keep him from reacting to smells, and he was drugged every day with tranquilizers dissolved in beer.

LiBearty rescued Max in 2006 and spent two years trying to restore partial sight. They could not, so staff created a private acre-large enclosure for him, so he could bathe in his own pool, hibernate in his own den, and spend his days enjoying the sun and the sounds of nature. He died in 2018, mourned by staff and visitors alike.

The wolves at LiBearty have stories similar to the bears. They were rescued from unequipped, underfinanced zoos without adequate space for them, or they were going to be killed, or they were found injured. In every case, the sanctuary stepped in and saved them, constructing a purpose-built enclosure designed to suit their needs.

LiBearty exists because of ignorance, cruelty, and tradition with respect to animals. So one of the sanctuary’s objectives is education about bears. Tour guides explain that brown bears weigh from 200 to 600 kilos. Notwithstanding their fierce reputations, they are 85 percent vegetarians; they only eat 15 percent meat and they adore honey. (One of the stimulations the sanctuary provides for its bears is to hide honey in logs and containers so the animals have to seek out the nectar and devise ways to access it.) Despite their lethally sharp claws and teeth, these bears fight rivals by trying to crush them. The guides explain that, one on one, a brown bear can defeat a human, but en masse, humans are encroaching on the natural habitat of bears and threatening their survival.

Education extends beyond the confines of the sanctuary. In 2012, sanctuary staff and volunteers visited every school in Brasov (the country’s second largest city). They hope to visit schools everywhere in Romania when the budget permits. During the 2014-15 school year, they rolled out a yearlong program of study for 10- to 12-year-olds.

“This is the most receptive age for information about animals that can be effective in guiding [kids] behavior,” explains Paula Ciotlos, a full-time staff member with LiBearty. “We are developing a textbook on the care of animals that the European Union is interested in funding, translating into English, and distributing throughout Europe. We think this would be the first welfare manual for animals in the EU.” The treatment of farm animals, the morality of zoos, and the mitigation of human-wildlife conflicts are all covered.

LiBearty staff hope their sanctuary and outreach efforts help turn the tide in Romania, and elsewhere, with respect to animal welfare. If future generations cannot learn how to coexist with the natural world, there will not be any world to protect. We and the wildlife around us are as interconnected as the fate of Maya and Cristina Lapis.

Learn more about LiBearty.

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