Bear Sanctuary is a beautiful illustrated book by Victor Watkins, who has worked in the field of animal welfare for over three decades. For bear enthusiasts, or even those who have a keen interest in learning more about what caring for and ensuring the wellbeing of these animals entails, the book is a valuable resource. In addition, it provides an updated account of the efforts being made to end the abuse and cruelty bears continue to endure.
In 1992, Watkins established the world’s first international campaign with the purpose of protecting bears from cruelty, both in captivity and in the wild. The campaign, LIBEARTY, was run by the World Society for the Protection of Animals (now known as World Animal Protection) and introduced the concept of a bear sanctuary for the first time.
His new book focuses on the creation of the LIBEARTY campaign and the subsequent establishment of the Libearty Bear Sanctuary, near Zarnesti, Romania. Set up across 70 hectares of hazel and oak forest in the Carpathian Mountains, the Libearty Bear Sanctuary offered a refuge to mostly Brown Bears that had been rescued from tragic living conditions and were being kept, for example, in small cages in restaurants and gas stations to attract customers.
Bear Sanctuary explains how, in the mid-1990s, with Romania soon to become an EU member and changing attitudes with regards to animal welfare, the country ordered the closure of poorly run zoos and banned individuals from keeping bears captive. Watkins doesn’t try to whitewash the complicated process of ‘legal confiscation’ that the Libearty Bear Sanctuary had to go through in order to rescue the mistreated Brown Bears.
Despite such hurdles, Watkins narrative captivates with his depiction of how the Brown Bears were brought to the sanctuary, administered the necessary veterinary care, and helped to begin their journey of recovery after years of suffering.
A Safe Haven
With acres of lush forest around them, the bears enjoy their days swimming pristine pools, climbing and scratching the trees, and foraging for food. Watkins tells the story of Suzi, for example, who was rescued from a derelict zoo after having spent years in a circus. At first, Suzi only dared to move tiny distances from one particular tree; eventually, however, she began to mix happily with the other bears and venture further into the forest.
In another example, Max, a brown bear captured as a cub, had spent his entire life chained up for the entertainment of tourists or locked in a small cage. When he was rescued, vets discovered he was completely blind, most likely from the abuse he suffered when he was young. They created a special area for him within Libearty, where he could safely use his other senses, such as smell and hearing, to move around.
These are only two of the many success stories witnessed in this wonderful Romanian bear sanctuary. Today it provides shelter and hope to over 60 rescued bears, who can, for the first time in their lives, enjoy the freedom this idyllic setting provides.
Watkins’ informative, well-crafted words allow the reader to focus on the importance of animal welfare and the on-going need for animal welfare organisations to protect, not only Brown Bears, but all animals, from the kind of suffering some of them still endure. Bear Sanctuary is a wonderful testament to the dedication of a few inspiring individuals whose unwavering compassion and effort have led to the rescue of dozens and dozens of bears.