This is a European brown bear, licking honey off a spoon held by me.
We met quite a few bears at the Medve Otthon (Bear Home), a sanctuary set up by the WSPA. I had never seen a bear before, let alone this close. At first I was quite excited by it all, and admiring of their safe surroundings, and then I began to think about it all. It’s more complex than I realised.
These bears were rescued from petting zoos, private collections, tourist attractions (chained up, roadside), circuses and other shitty environments that big, beautiful omnivores shouldn’t ever be in. Most of the bears are shy and they hang out in the woods or in the dens created for them in the huge enclosure. Some dig out spaces for themselves in the dirt and lie with their big cute beary bums in the cool earth and the rest of their bodies in the sunshine.
A few of the bears come right up to the fence-line and look at you, as if to say, “hi, human. I’m familiar with your type. Got some food?” The reason adult bears cannot be rehabilitated and released back into the wild is that they associate humans with food, and will always be hanging around residential areas looking in people’s bins and rummaging through things that bears really should not be getting into. This earns the bear the title of “pest” or “threat”, and they would be shot, as they were in the past, even if they did not attack a human. Bears that have been kept in captivity since a young age don’t know how to forage for food in the wild, so they sniff out rubbish tips, bins and other food sources (mostly near humans, of course). This is a huge issue in parts of Romania (thanks National Geographic Channel!)
The bears we met – the bold ones who come up to the fence – were passive giants who were very keen on some honey. They were a little timid, and the spoon had to be put through the fence at a certain point and on a particular angle for them to lick the honey off. Interestingly, each bear had its own style of consuming honey. Apparently some are cheeky and will pinch the spoon from you and nick off with it!
Feeding them got me thinking. Am I perpetuating the unnatural human-bear “bond” by feeding them? Surely it would be better to leave them alone completely?
But the other side to this double-edged sword is that the sanctuary probably couldn’t afford to run without people paying entrance fees to see the bears and other animals. And selling a small plastic squeezey container of honey to tourists, to get the tourists to come for the sole reason of getting close to a huge bear without threat, means they are earning more of an income to support the running of the sanctuary.
Let me do some number crunching for you:
It costs 4800 Hungarian Forint per day to feed and keep one bear. There are about 40 bears living at Medve Otthon. (That’s 192 000 Hungarian Forint, which is about $821 Australian dollars, according to today’s exchange rate. PER DAY.)
It cost us only 500 Forint per person to enter, and 3oo for parking. The container of honey cost 500 Forint. So, 1800 Ft. for two people, including honey. That’s about $7.70.
This puts it in perspective for me. These bears are going to see out their days in this sanctuary. They have space to hang out alone if they want to, space to hibernate, big dams to swim, fish and play in, woods to hide in, poles with old tyres to clamber on/around, and they are fed a huge variety of bear-appropriate food each day. The bears are desexed and vet-treated. There is no breeding at the sanctuary. This to me all seems like quite responsible animal care, and a million times better for the bears than their previous lives. So whilst the honey-feeding gimmick kind of put me in a strange head-space, about whether I was perhaps not doing these bears any favours by encouraging human-bear interaction, I have since made peace with myself over it, and decided it was an OK thing to do. Sort of.
What I realised was, it’s about choice. They don’t have to come up to the fence and say hi. They can disappear into the depth of their huge enclosure and not give a beary hoot about tourists. That’s the good thing.
Medve Otthon also hosts two packs of beautiful European wolves. They are hard to spot during the daytime but we caught a glimpse of a pack basking in the sun. (The wolves are in a separate huge enclosure to the bears.)
Not a world-class, mind-blowing tourist attraction, but worth a visit if you’re interested in how different parts of the world are working on animal conservation. Especially worth it if you love animals and feel like popping a few thousand Forint into the donation box on your way out. (Yes, I did.)
This YouTube video of how bears were rescued in the USA gave me some great insights.
I do not recommend watching any videos of dancing bears and how they are rescued (even the ones that have happy endings for the bears) because they are very distressing. I promise that the video above has a lovely sentiment and is not too distressing.
Whilst I don’t like the criss-crossing of fencing lines across him, this bear was a happy chap who liked his honey. More of my beary cute photos on Flickr if you’re interested.
OK, I’ll stop with the word play now.
This YouTube clip shows the bears at Medve Otthon playing in their pond. CUTE!