Blind bears start new lives in world’s largest bear sanctuary

Aug 19, 2008

Two blind bears that spent their lives in tiny, rusting cages found new homes in the large woodland enclosures of the world’s biggest bear sanctuary last week – part of a groundbreaking project funded by WSPA.

Max and Ursula are two of 34 residents at the sanctuary, set in 170 acres of Romanian woodland.

With pools to splash and swim in, food for foraging, and places to make dens, the sanctuary’s enclosures are designed to let the bears express their natural instincts.

Typical tales

Like most of the rescued bears, Max and Ursula had never experienced the outdoors before arriving at the sanctuary.

Max’s story is sadly common. A European brown bear, now about 13 years old, Max was taken from his mother as a cub, chained up and made a roadside tourist attraction. His blindness made him easy for his owner to control.

Ursula is 26 and the only Asiatic black bear in the sanctuary. Until WSPA staff rescued her from Romania’s Buhusi Zoo in June, she had only ever known a barren pen measuring just ten square meters.

Despite these hardships, bears adapt to new surroundings quickly. The hope was that Max and Ursula would flourish in their new home, and that expert care might even restore their sight.

Dedicated teamwork

Ursula in the barren zoo enclosure before rescue

Their visual problems meant these bears needed special care before being released into a forested enclosure.

A team of British experts led by David Donaldson – a specialist eye vet and head of the ophthalmology unit at the world-renowned Animal Health Trust (AHT) – generously volunteered their time and considerable resources.

They made an initial assessment from video footage: Max had been blind since birth and Ursula had cataracts.

Sanctuary staff reluctantly decided that given Ursula’s age, it would be safer and for her to go straight into an enclosure and bypass the stress of an operation.

After months of preparation, David flew out to Romania to operate on Max, accompanied by Claudia Hartley, another specialist eye vet, and Elizabeth Leece, head of the AHT anaesthesia unit. They joined the sanctuary’s Senior Veterinary Advisor, Dr. Liviu Harbuz.

Best efforts for Max

Ursula experiences grass and nature for the first time in her sanctuary enclosure

It took eight people to get a tranquilized Max, weighting 330kg, onto a stretcher and into the clinic.

Sadly, despite the AHT team’s expertise and efforts, the tests performed there showed that Max’s eyesight could not be restored.

While this was disappointing, Victor Watkins, Wildlife Advisor and WSPA sanctuary liaison, said: “Speaking to the AHT experts, it seems that Max has been blind since birth and has irreversible sight problems. Luckily, Max has a great sense of smell and hearing and will still be able to live quite comfortably.”

WSPA’s work continues

After the release, Victor commented: “Max and Ursula sadly came from all too common backgrounds, so to see them return to a natural forest is wonderful. We are so grateful to the Animal Health Trust for making sure that Max and Ursula are healthy enough to go back where they belong.”

He also summed up the challenges that remain: “It now makes us more determined to get the last 30 Romanian bears WSPA has indentified out of captivity and into the sanctuary.” 

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All images and film © WSPA

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