I had this feeling of apprehension every time I thought about one of the visits we had programmed towards the end of my 2 week long Experience Romania road trip. A visit to the Libearty Bear Sanctuary in Zarnesti was on the cards, and while it was optional, I couldn’t help but feel a bit nervous about this.
Generally, I can’t help being skeptical about the true intentions of animal sanctuaries that double up as wildlife attractions. In fact, according to a study published by World Animal Protection in 2016, only 25% of wildlife attractions provide a high standard of care. So unless I do my own research in depth and I’m happy with the condition the animals are kept in, I won’t even entertain the idea of visiting one.
Thankfully, to my enormous relief, Libearty Bear Sanctuary turned out to be an incredibly moving and inspiring place to visit. The first thing you see when you arrive at the entrance is a big sign saying ‘This is Not a Zoo!’, which was reassuring to say the least. But while I was there, I also found out that the sanctuary had been named as one of the best ethical wildlife attractions in the world by National Geographic Traveller.
Table of Contents
- 1 How do I know a sanctuary is ethical?
- 2 Bears in Romania had a tough life
- 3 Libearty Bear Sanctuary in Zarnesti
- 4 New beginnings
- 5 Important work for the future
- 6 Visiting Libearty Bear Sanctuary
- 7 How you can help Libearty Bear Sanctuary
- 8 Like this post? Pin and save it for later
How do I know a sanctuary is ethical?
I know a lot of it sounds obvious, but when I do my research these are the things I personally look for on an ethical sanctuary.
- The animals are kept in an environment that is as close as possible to their natural habitat in the wild.
- They have plenty of space to roam freely.
- If any of the animals are unable to roam freely due to circumstances (adjustment period, illness, etc), they must be kept in clean, spacious and natural areas.
- There is minimal human interaction, and NO interaction between the animals and vistors at all (no feeding, petting, holding, selfies).
- The animals have not arrived to the sanctuary by having been bought – this is sometimes hard to check before a visit, and sometimes even after.
- Accrediation by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries.
PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) have a good article on how to tell if a place is a real animal sanctuary. This is a great resource to bookmark and check as part of your research if you ever consider visiting an animal sanctuary.
Bears in Romania had a tough life
In Romania, it used to be common to see bears outside restaurants and petrol stations, caged and used as a reclaim in order to attract customers. Many cubs would be taken from the wild to be used as tourist attractions, held in very small cages with barely any space to move and in appalling conditions.
Thankfully, with ownership of bears becoming illegal in 2005 (yes, only over a decade ago), this has now stopped. However, there are still circuses that use bears and other animals for entertainment. And this is where Libearty comes in.
Libearty Bear Sanctuary in Zarnesti
The sanctuary is located in Zarnesti in Brasov County, and was founded by Cristina Lapis, a Romanian lady who made a pledge to herself to rescue as many bears as possible after she saw 3 bears in a small cage outside a restaurant.
Cristina has made it her mission in life to save all bears from cruelty and exploitation in Romania, and this dream of hers has become a very important reality. She has rescued over 100 bears from restaurant cages, circuses and pseudo-zoos from all over the world, as well as other animals such as wolves, who now roam around an area of 160 acres of woodland that was donated by the local council.
We were very lucky to meet Cristina herself on our visit. She welcomed us and told us the story of how she got started, and how one of the first bears she rescued, Maya, died in her arms – the cruelty she had endured was too much and she was so severely depressed that she mutilated herself. The sanctuary is actually dedicated to Maya, and you can read about her heartbreaking story here.
Cristina walked with us through the woods by the enclosures, telling us about some of the bears we encountered. Each bear came with a terrible story of hardship – some used to be circus bears made to dress up and ride bicycles, some were blinded by their owners so they could not escape, and some were kept in chains and cages to entertain tourists.
Cristina explained the process that bears go through when they first arrive. They are treated for any wounds and medical conditions, they are sterilised and their teeth repaired.
When they are strong and healthy, they are released into the ‘training area’ for around 3 months. I should clarify that this is not an area where the bears get trained, but where they become used to being free. Some of these bears may not know what freedom is after spending years alone in a cage being familiar with humans, so they will need time to adjust.
Once they have gone through the adjustment period, they will be able to be released into one of the large enclosures (of up to 30 acres).
Important work for the future
It is very clear straight away that the work that Cristina and her team of volunteers are doing is invaluable. None of these bears will ever be able to live in the wild again as, due to the abuse, they lack the natural skills they need to survive. But the life they have in the sanctuary is the closest thing to being back to being a bear again as nature intended, climbing trees, playing in pools and foraging in the forest.
But that is not all. Cristina and her team have also done a lot of work to create awareness about the issues affecting bears in Romania, and they regularly carry out educational programs and help schools organise trips to the sanctuary.
Visiting Libearty Bear Sanctuary
During the winter schedule (from 1st November to 30th April), the sanctuary can be visited between at 11am and 12pm, while the rest of the year the visits can start at 9am until 11am.
During your visit, you will be shown around by a specialised guide, who will explain the history of the sanctuary and stories of some of the bears you will encounter. There are tours both in Romanian and in English.
The entrance ticket costs between 40 and 55 Lei (~$10-$15 USD) depending on the time slot, day of the week and season.
Groups larger than 15 people need to make an appointment in advance, and children under 5 are not allowed.
How you can help Libearty Bear Sanctuary
Bears can live up to 40 years in the sanctuary, and all the bears combined need almost two tons of food per day.
The sanctuary does not receive public funds and depends on donations, visitors and volunteers. So these are a few ways that you can help.
Visit the sanctuary
Your entrance ticket contribution will go towards creating and maintaining this natural home for the bears.
Adopt a Bear
The sanctuary now runs an Adopt-a-Bear program, which has a minimum contribution of 5 Euros/month. This will help feed the bears, provide veterinary treatment and maintain the forest and facilities.
Every summer, the sanctuary accepts 3-4 volunteers who help preparing food for the bears and giving a hand in the dog shelter that is part of the sanctuary too. More information about volunteering here.
Finally, help spread the word
Do you know of any other ethical sanctuaries around the world?
Let me know in the comments!
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Disclosure: A big thank you to Experience Romania who hosted me on this program, and to Cristina Lapis and the staff of the sanctuary for taking the time to take us around. As always, all views are my own. This post also contains affiliate links, that earn me a small commission but come at no extra cost to you. Thanks as always for your support!