Every year, wild bears are illegally caught by poachers in Armenia. Once captured, many of them end up kept as tourist attractions in small, squalid cages in restaurants and other public entertainment venues. Some are kept in bus depots, others are hidden from view in dark cellars. Some of the bears are permanently mentally and physically damaged by the boredom and frustration of their miserable existence behind bars. In some rural restaurants in Armenia, bear meat is even available to those who know to request it.
The bears in Armenia are Syrian Brown Bears (Ursus arctos syriacus), one of the smaller subspecies of brown bear. They are found in the mountainous areas of the country where they forage for fruits, berries and insects in meadows and forests and hibernate in caves and tree hollows. These barren prisons are a far cry from their natural home in the forest.
Many bears are being kept captive in miserable conditions across Armenia, including in the capital city of Yerevan. Some have been incarcerated for years in cramped cages with scarcely any food or water. Their environment meets none of their psychological or physical needs. They have very little space to move around in. They are given unsuitable and insufficient food and no environmental enrichment to distract or amuse them. The bears have been deprived of their dignity and their freedom. They lack everything they need to live their lives as nature intended.
The Great Bear Rescue
In October 2017, International Animal Rescue launched a new campaign to help these suffering bears. The Great Bear Rescue aims to free them from their suffering and, after thorough veterinary checks and assessment, rehabilitate and eventually release those that are physically and mentally equipped to fend for themselves in the wild. Those that are not viable for release will be given permanent homes in sanctuaries where they will be well cared for, well fed and have the freedom to express natural bear behaviors.
As part of our Great Bear Rescue campaign, in June 2018 we freed five more bears from their miserable lives behind bars. The animals were part of a private zoo collection discovered during a raid on the home of a retired army General in the Armenian city of Echmiadzin.
The first phase of the rescue operation, which entailed the removal of a tiger and two bears from their cages, was streamed live on our Facebook page, generating comments of support and thanks from people around the world.
Even at first sight it was clear that the animals were in very poor condition, extremely underweight and with sparse, matted coats. Closer inspection under anesthetic revealed that one bear in particular, at first thought to be a young cub because of his size, was in fact an adult whose growth had been stunted by years of malnourishment and neglect.
The rescued tiger is under the expert care of the staff at the Yerevan zoo. The bears are all safely in our care and were kept in quarantine for 3 weeks while they were tested for contagious diseases. They have behaviour disorders, displaying stereotypical behaviour, such as moving back and forth and repeating the same movements. This is the result of their years in captivity, in tiny cages and on concrete floor.
International Animal Rescue CEO Alan Knight said, “These poor animals led miserable lives behind bars purely for the idle entertainment of their captor and his friends. Thankfully now the tables have been turned and the captor is behind bars, while the animals have been liberated! It will take considerable time for them to recover from the mistreatment and neglect they have endured, and we can’t tell at this stage whether they have suffered lasting physical or mental damage. With the help of the Foundation for the Preservation of Wildlife and Cultural Assets (FPWC), our partners on the ground in Armenia, we will do all we can to restore them to health and give them a chance to enjoy the lives they deserve, with the freedom to express natural behavior and live as nature intended.”
See a portion of one rescue in the video below, which shows the removal of a sedated bear from the cage he’s lived in for far too long.
Featured image: a bear looks out from a cage in Armenia. This image and all images in this story credited to International Animal Rescue.