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On the Radar

After 20 years in a cage, freedom for Albania brown bear

Briseida Mema - Agence France-Presse
After 20 years in a cage, freedom for Albania brown bear
This photograph taken on Dec. 3, 2022, shows the brown bear Mark, inside his cage at a restaurant in Tirana. After more than two decades entertaining guests at an Albanian restaurant, brown bear Mark is heading towards a better life in an Austrian sanctuary, but on December 7, 2022, under heavy anaesthetic, he started his journey to the Aberbasch shelter in northern Austria, by the help of the Four Paws animal welfare group.
AFP/Gent Shkullaku

TIRANA, Albania — After more than two decades in a cage at an Albanian restaurant for diners to look at, brown bear Mark is heading towards a better life in an Austrian sanctuary.

Until now, he has spent his life entertaining visitors to the Sofra e Ariut (Bear's Table) restaurant in Tirana along with his sister Liza.

But on Wednesday, under heavy anaesthetic, he started his journey to the Aberbasch shelter in northern Austria, thanks to the Four Paws animal welfare group.

Their rescue operation came too late for his sister however. She died two years ago.

Both bears were brought to the restaurant as cubs two decades ago after their mother was shot dead, according to its then owners.

There, they lived in the cage of some 100 square metres (1,075 square feet), with concrete floor, in poor conditions and on an inadequate diet, said Sajmir Shehu, the Four Paws project coordinator in Albania.

Left out in the open and at the mercy of extreme weather the bears were never allowed to hibernate, said Four Paws.

Now Mark, at 250 kilos (550 pounds) is overweight and has difficulties moving. Due to boredom and stress he has developed anxiety disorders, becoming aggressive and growling at the slightest noise.

And his condition only worsened in 2020 when Liza died.

"Mark couldn't stop crying for two or three months," Hiqmet Murati, the bears' keeper for 20 years, told AFP.

Their owners even let the pair mate, but none of the cubs survived because their stressed-out parents bit them to death, he added.

 

- Wider problem in Albania -

 

As a result of his ill-treatment, the bear needs emergency care to survive, said Shehu.

His poor diet and 20 years in a cage means he suffers from joint, muscle, eye and vital organs problems, said the Four Paws experts.

Once in the sanctuary, Mark will get the veterinary care and proper food he needs "so he can recover quickly and enjoy a life worthy of a bear", said Shehu.

But this bear's plight is not the only case that Four Paws has had to deal with, said Shehu, who is a biodiversity expert.

This the 34th wild animal the organisation with help of its peers has moved out of Albania, he said.

"Urgent action is also needed against the growing illegal wildlife trade in the country," said Four Paws coordinator Magdalena Scherk-Trettin.

The authorities in Albania say they are considering opening a sanctuary for confiscated wild animals.

Four Paws says Mark is the last of Albania's so-called "restaurant bears".

But it added in a statement: "While Mark's rescue is a significant milestone, bears in Albania are still in danger of being abused as pets or tourist attractions in the future without a change in legislation."

Big cats too were being traded illegally and suffering from poor treatment from private owners, it added.

The restaurant meanwhile will be removing the cage that held them the bears - but it will keep its name.

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