in the bear sanctuary romania

The Bear Sanctuary of Zarnesti – a Lesson in Human Interaction with Wildlife

The largest bear sanctuary in the world, the Libearty Bear Sanctuary in Zarnesti gives a home to once mistreated or injured bears. No, they don’t have a breeding program.

The bears living in Romania are brown bears, and they are not a threatened species. Smaller than their North American cousin, the grizzly, they live in most of Europe, and they especially seem to like the Carpathians.

In fact, it seems to be an overpopulation of brown bears in and around the mountains of Romania. They even come into towns.

In Brasov, I heard the garbage trucks come late at night, on a few consecutive nights. My brother assured me I wasn’t imagining it. Yes, they take the garbage out of town every night. So the bears, common in the area, don’t come in. My brother sees them occasionally on his daily runs. They are perfectly safe to be around if you don’t startle them, he said.

Interactions between humans and bears are usually safe. People don’t get hurt, bears don’t get hurt. Usually. But accidents happen. For example, one of the bears brought to the Sanctuary was hit by a car.

So Why the Need for a Sanctuary in Romania?

People and bears didn’t always have a peaceful interaction. Sometimes they still don’t.

Years ago people cared even less about wild animals than they do today. Taking bear cubs from the wild after their mother was shot and keeping in tiny cages was commonplace. These bears would grow up with minimal food and not knowing what it felt like to run around in the wild or to climb a tree. They were “loved” as pets, or used as attractions for restaurants and gas stations, living in small, rusted cages, where they could barely fit. We saw one of those cages on display at the sanctuary…

The zoos in Romania kept large animals like bears in cages barely big enough for them to take a few steps. Yes, I visited a zoo like that as a child, on a school trip. It was considered “educational” to see wild animals in captivity like that; as if we could learn anything about them…

The Libearty Bear Sanctuary is Born

Cristina Lapis saw a bear she called Maya, in a tiny cage just outside Bran Castle, in 1998. This beautiful bear was so sad, living in those conditions, she felt compelled to help.

Later she found more bears mistreated the same way all over the country… scary, what is wrong with people? What goes on in those puny brains of those who do things like this? I’ve seen other animals with similar stories all over the world, jaguars getting declawed and kept as pets, mountain lions getting their canines pulled out so they couldn’t eat properly and kept in tiny cages as entertainment…who the heck thinks this is entertainment?

Though it was too late for Maya, other mistreated bears in Romania got a second chance to a decent life thanks to her. Cristina started an organization called Millions of Friends, based in Brasov, and they set off to create a bear sanctuary.

Zarnesti, a Transylvanian town about 12 miles from Brasov, donated the land for it, 160 acres of oak and hazel forest at the foot of the Carpathians. From this collaboration, the Bear Sanctuary was born…

Bears at the Sanctuary
Bears in the Sanctuary

We Set Off to Visit the Bear Sanctuary

I woke up to the sound of heavy rain pounding the balcony of my brother’s Brasov apartment. While as a desert dweller I usually enjoy the rain, especially in the summer, this time it was bad timing. We planned to visit the Bear Sanctuary that morning, and we knew we’d have to drive through a dirt road to get there. Besides that, rain in Brasov tends to be cold, even in late June, and we brought no warm clothes.

While I was waiting for everyone else to wake up, I was hoping the rain would stop. Instead, it was pounding the building even harder. I was surprised my girls slept through it. By the time everyone was awake, it looked like it would rain all day. We were starting to think of giving up on our outing, making an alternate plan for the day. But it was our last full day in town, so my daughters were reluctant to give up. My brother eyed our summer clothing…

“You did not come prepared for Brasov weather,” he said. “I can give you jackets and warm shirts, but you don’t have the right shoes.”

“We’ve been wet and cold before,” my daughter shrugged. “We’d get wet and cold no matter what we do.”

So we decided to drive in that direction and see what happens. If the sanctuary was closed for bad weather (I don’t know why we thought that, but it seemed possible), we’d find something else to do.

We Got Lucky

By the time we got close to Zarnesti, just a few miles up the road, the rain stopped and it cleared. After the turn-off from the main road, it was slow going, on a narrow dirt road that occasionally wasn’t much more than a track on the hillside or in the forest.

A few cars were parked at the entrance already. We found a spot and got out, expecting to be cold enough to at least need the jackets. But the weather was perfect, we were comfortable in our own clothes, long pants, and t-shirts.

You can’t visit the sanctuary without a guided tour. The good news is, they have one leaving every half hour, sometimes even more often, if they have a guide and enough people for a tour. They offer them in Romanian and in English. While my brother and I could have chosen the Romanian one, my daughters don’t speak the language and we needed to join an English-speaking tour. Fortunately, one was just leaving as we got there.

They waited for us and we set off with Claudia, our English-speaking guide. It turned out to be an interesting group. As far as I could tell, the only native English speakers were my daughters. The other members of our groups seemed to be from all over Europe, of different native languages, but English was the only common language everyone understood and spoke to different degrees.

Visiting the Bear Sanctuary in Zarnesti

After watching a short video about the sanctuary and safety on the premises, we set off on a walking tour through it. Though we weren’t sure we would see many bears, we were lucky to see quite a few of them and learn their names and stories. Yes, they all have names, and some live in separate enclosures.

But don’t think of enclosures like those you see in zoos, even the best ones. These large enclosures of forested areas have natural pools, hibernation dens and lots of trees for the bears to climb. It’s really just a huge area of the forest, cut off from humans. While we were there, we’ve seen a bears playing in a pool, others running around or rubbing against tree trunks. A few came close to the fence and seemed to greet us.

in the bear sanctuary romania
A bear coming to greet us

These bears, taken from the wild as cubs never learned to take care of themselves, to survive in the wild. But here, at the sanctuary, they have space to behave as they normally would, without too much human interaction. An electric fence separates them from visitors and staff alike, so other than seeing them from across it, they have no real interaction with humans (unless they are sick or injured).

They feed on vegetation, nuts, and berries they find in the forest, but they need more food than that. Since we happened to be there at the right time, we witnessed a feeding session.

The Bears Get a Treat (and extra food)

A truck came up behind us on the trail, when we were stopped at the enclosure of the two younger bears. It stunk of rotten food. Two younger guys stepped out, took a long pole, and put some food on it, then swung it over the high fence. They repeated it a few times with all different food, then at the end they swung over something that looked to me like a watermelon.

As we moved on, Claudia told us about the feeding. Bears being omnivores, it is relatively easy to find food for them, though considering their needs, it still costs quite a bit. They have a few restaurants that give them leftovers, but they still need to buy more. But the priciest thing is the treat that they give the bears.

We didn’t guess until she told us: they sometimes give all their bears honey, their favorite. My children’s favorite character, Pooh-bear must have been based on real bears, at least as far as his obsession with honey was concerned.

Here, at the sanctuary, they figured out a way to fling the honey over the fence. They put it in bread. No, not just slices of bread with honey, like we would eat. They hollow out a large round bread, and fill it with honey, that way it’s heavy enough to fly across the fence. The thing that looked to me like a watermelon? Yes, it was the bear’s treat, honey in a bread. No wonder they got on it so fast, we couldn’t see what they were eating.

After feeding... content bear
Content after feeding…

The Bears in the Sanctuary

They have around 100 brown bears at the sanctuary right now, and we saw only a few. The rest were off, far from the fence, living as bears do. Most have names, and we learned some of their stories. They were rescued from tiny cages set in restaurants and other places, from inadequate zoos, and from circuses where they were kept as entertainment.

Old bears and young bears, tiny orphaned cubs, injured bears or healthy ones, they all found a home at the Libearty Bear Sanctuary. They are all different, they look different, they have different fur color and different personalities. Even from the short time I spent among them, seeing only a few, I could see the difference.

People who work at the sanctuary know each of them and know what to expect from them, how each would behave in a certain situation. Some don’t mind people and come to see us, others I’m sure are as far from the fence as possible, roaming in the enclosed forest, as they would in the wild.

Old Bears – Slow and Quiet

Betsy, the oldest bear, was the first one we encountered. She’s almost 40 years old, extremely old for a bear. They usually don’t live much past their 20s. Betsy’s color is lighter than other bears, I think bears go grey as they mature, just like people. She’s old and grey and slow, just like old people. She has arthritis and other ailments that come with old age.

bear. zarnesti
Older bear…

Young Bears – Being Playful

Two younger ones we encountered, are darker in color, and they were constantly on the move, jumping around, looking at us briefly, then running off, chasing each other. Just like our own kids.

young bear the sanctuary in Romania
One of the younger bears…

Adult Bears at the Community Pool

We noticed a few in and around a large pool, they did not even look in our directions, but were splashing and running around the water.

Bear in a pool ...
Enjoying the pool …

Bears are not much Different from Us

The bears at the Sanctuary behave much like they would in the wild, and a lot like we would in the forest. And the babies behave much like our own babies.

Though we couldn’t go close to see them, because they are not in an enclosure yet, we learned about the two orphaned cubs who recently got there. They adopted their caretaker as their mother, and they are so attached to him, they can’t be separated. They go through separation anxiety just like our own human babies do at that age.

A Bear in the Wild

I saw a bear in the wild at Santa Ana Lake. Unfortunately, I was still on a bus, and he disappeared by the time we got off. He stood in a clearing, in plain view. People were standing relatively close to him. Some were looking at him, a few were taking pictures. But no one tried to interact with him.

A still picture, a moment so natural, I could tell it was commonplace there. As the bus turned, the noise startled the bear. He was little, probably an older cub. He turned and walked into the forest.

We were told not to walk in the forest alone after dark, or later in the day, we would most likely encounter bears. Locals would not be around who know how to handle the meetings. We looked foreigners, I guess we needed the warning.

Grateful for the Bear Sanctuary from Zarnesti and similar places

All bears should be free to live in the wild, even in and around people. We were the ones who built our towns and cities encroaching into their wilderness, at least we should learn to live with them peacefully. While the society in Romania came a long way in the past few years in understanding bears and how to interact with them, the Libearty Bear Sanctuary is still needed.

One of the visitors asked what would happen when all the bears who live there died of old age since people don’t abuse bears anymore, shows using bears and zoos where they are uncomfortable are outlawed. Claudia’s answer: “we would be so happy if we ‘d have to close the sanctuary because there is no need for it. But unfortunately, we keep getting new bears all the time. Injured bears, orphaned bears, and sometimes even abused bears.”

Yes, it would be a great day when the animal sanctuaries wouldn’t need to exist. It would be a great day when people would learn to live side by side with all wild creatures, including bears, in harmony. Some of us can dream of that day.

But until then, I am grateful for places like this where bears and other wild animals who can no longer live in the wild, find a happy home.

While in the area, you can visit several castles and citadels nearby:

Rasnov Citadel

Rupea Citadel

Fagaras Fortress

Bear Sanctuary, Zarnesti, Romania

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