"Restaurant bear" freed in Albania is fat and depressed, rescuer says
For 20 years, Mark was kept in a small cage outside a restaurant in Tirana, Albania, one of dozens of "restaurant bears" put on display around the country as an attraction for guests.
Now, he's on his way to a bear sanctuary in Austria. The animal welfare organization that rescued him on Wednesday believes he's the last "restaurant bear" in Albania to be taken to a new home.
The 24-year-old brown bear was exposed to heat and other extreme weather conditions while in captivity outside the restaurant and was never able to hibernate, according to Four Paws International, the group that took custody of him. He's now in poor health as a result.
"He’s really a fat bear," Magdalena Scherk-Trettin, the project manager for the rescue, told Semafor over the phone while waiting to cross the border into Greece on Wednesday. She said it took 10 people to load Mark into a bear ambulance after he was sedated.
She described Mark as introverted and depressed after spending 20 years as a restaurant bear, but once he's at the sanctuary, "we expect him to be a playful bear."
The restaurant recently changed ownership, and the new owner agreed to hand over Mark and say in writing that no bears would be put on display again.
Four Paws warned that while Mark is the last restaurant bear to be rescued, it's still legal in Albania to own a bear if it was born in captivity and if other legal requirements are met.
It is calling on the Balkan nation to enact a total ban on the private keeping of bears and big cats, and implement new legal measures to combat the illegal wildlife trade.
"Our work in Albania is far from over," said Sajmir Shehu, a Four Paws project coordinator in Albania.
Over the course of two days, the rescue team will drive to Austria, going through Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, and Hungary.
Mark's new home is a bear sanctuary in Arbesbach in rural northern Austria.
He'll be one of four bears living on the nearly 4-acre property, which has been a natural habitat for bears since 1998.
"The sanctuary offers space for the bears to express their natural behaviors, like bathing, digging, roaming, climbing and retiring in caves, either to hide and snooze, or hibernate in the winter," Four Paws said.