From hell to paradise - how two bears from Leszno (PL) were going to Bärenwald Müritz (Germany)

Bears in Leszno

Two brown bear females in mini - zoo Leszno were born in a mini-zoo in Nowy Tomysl in the time, when bears were being bred without limitations and care for the place for cubs. Today Basia is 27 years old, and Kasia is 16. They are aggressive towards themselves, have to be kept in separate, small cages. Both bears suffering from the behavioural disorder called stereotypies, manifested by pacing, head-twisting etc. Concrete causes changes in the bone structure and negatively influences the condition of feet.   

We started to study the behaviour of Leszno bears in 2007 with the support of Polish organization OTOZ Animals and British RSPCA. We knew that the municipality of the city of Leszno did not want to devote money to improve keeping standard to acceptable level. We have started to look for solutions, and the only one was to move both bears to a new place. As a temporary but necessary change until the moment of finding the final solution to move bears, we have recommended the change of the diet and the application of enrichment. Unfortunately implemented changes were insufficient. The Leszno zoo had obtained the license but qualified, with improvement issues to address. Bad keeping conditions caused the zoo being threatened with the withdrawal of the license. After long and intense efforts, the Vier Pfoten (Four Paws) – an organization with huge experience in helping bears, had agreed to take both animals.

In days preceding the transport of bears to Germany, we were being in Leszno every day to record their behaviour. Involuntarily we have heard opinions of visitors, of which the considerable part was very critical about conditions that bears are forced to live in. The municipality was assuring that bears have special meaning in Leszno and people can protest against taking them. After several days spent in front of cages we have a way different impression. On the main promenade in Leszno there are a dozen or so arranged plates with paws of bears and the list of sponsors that 5 years ago financed the enlargement of the one of cages. Unfortunately, the consultation by  the former head of the Wrocław zoo, Mr. Gucwinski led to inappropriate design, not filling the needs of bears. In January 2011 Mr. Gucwinski was sentenced for the abuse of Mago the bear kept for 10 years in the indoor cage of 6 m2. At the time of planning it seemed the consultation of popular director guarantees  good enclosure.

Two years ago the third female bear died. A change of the diet, suggested by "ecologists", was recognized as the cause of her death. It would be the case first in the world of the death of a bear from the change of a diet, from wrong (based on bread, carrot, milk (!) and with what visitors are throwing in out of control) to appropriate (enriched with variety of fruits, vegetables and leaves). Hard to imagine that the change of the diet could be called as abrupt when there was no real control over what bears really eat. Only for someone with no elementary knowledge about the biology of bears it could be proper diagnosis with so many question marks behind. The brown bear is changing the diet seasonally all year round; it is different in spring, other during summer and another in autumn. At any time it can find the dead deer - then for a few days becoming exclusively a carnivore. And then during the season rich with blueberries, bears become almost exclusively "blueberries-vore". What was the real cause of death of the third female bear, we will never learn.


Day of departure

The transport was supposed to start on Friday, 17th of June, 2011 at 6.30 a.m. Unfortunately the lack of the EU certificate of the origin stood for the obstacle. Settling the issue of documents and permits is a matter of the owner. Zoo managers in Leszno started it too late. Additionally, some misunderstandings and vague information on regulations concerning documentation handed at offices appeared causing even more troubles. It turned out that the solution requires more time. So we are spending the whole previous day "on phones", we are pushing everyone who could help. The phone bill is swelling up to a few hundred of zlotys. Unfortunately, it is the amount that has to be covered from our funds. Municipality has no feeling to help with these costs. On our project account there is as many as zero zlotys. The matter of honour of the Leszno municipality became, that they spend no single zloty for the transport. Indeed, for several dozens of people waiting for the document, there is no even small catering. Nobody remembers about the traditional Polish hospitality.

In the day preceding the action, the Germans don't know whether to come to Poland. On their side everything is already prepared for the trip. The team of consultants, a dozen or so employees torn away from daily work, and TV crews. Almost 30 people in total. Reservations in a hotel in Leszno are waiting. Finally the decision is made and in the evening the team arrives. The officer at the Polish CITES office is full of a good will to help, but cannot issue the document until doesn't obtain the agreement from the German counterpart on animals accepted for the transfer. The atmosphere is nervous and tense, it turns out that officers in Leszno didn't communicate with Vier Pfoten and some municipal officials had been waiting for Germans from early morning. It is hard to communicate clearly since officers do not speak in foreign languages. Also journalists from local media are waiting in mini zoo. A councilor Wojciech Zimniak, being good at German, and Magda Scherk from Vier Pfoten works as translators. Magda was born in Gdansk. Her parents went to Germany, when she was a child.

Today the zoo is closed for visitors. We arrive there at 10 a.m. Both bears hadn’t eaten since 24 hours and drinked since a few. It is necessary in case of anaesthesia. On Friday morning still a few phone calls to be made and early afternoon the fax with CITES document is in the zoo. When having the document, it is possible to start.



A convoy of cars from Germany includes, among others, a big car for bear transport and smaller one, in which the mobile X-ray is being transported. Dr. Frank Göritz from Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Berlin, one of the best specialists on the wild animals veterinary medicine in Europe, will be conducting immobilization of bears. They will wake up in transport cages. Except dr. Göritz, three other veterinarians are present, one of them came from Australia for a visit at the Institute and with this visit he is to assist also in Leszno. The doctors are placing needed medicines on the table delivered by zoo staff. They are preparing anesthetics. The first shot is accurate, everyone must move away from cages as the animal must be calm. After a few minutes Kasia falls asleep, then checking whether enough deeply, and it is possible to enter the cage.

First that enters is the team of doctors, attach pulse-oxymeter to the tongue to  measure the pulse and the oxygen in blood. In an opened mouth there is a wooden block placed between canines, so that the animal doesn't close it. Oxygen to the nose and preventive drip are being provided, then the general examination. Afterwards, blood samples are taken and micro-chipping done. All that would be needed if something went wrong is accessible. Then we enter, take samples for analyses (faeces, hair) and body measurements. We are to take pictures of each foot (bears kept on concrete surface have serious problems with them), and record the examination as video report. Patrick Boncourt is helping us. In the Vier Pfoten he is responsible for projects concerning bears. He was arriving repeatedly to Leszno to get to know both females. On the special strong sheet, 6 people are carrying Kasia out to the car with the X-ray. Then everyone moves away to some distance not to get additionally x-rayed. 


Then Kasia is placed into the transport cage. Dr. Göritz gives her an injection with antidote. The cage is being closed. After a few minutes Kasia is getting up. She is calm. Then loading into the car and it is possible to start repeating the procedure with the next bear. The whole procedure took over two hours. Both females are in cages in the car. Now it is possible to eat something, the team is taking sandwiches prepared earlier. Everyone is already a bit tired, both with the work, and previous waiting for papers. The temperature reaches 24* C in the shadow, but it is not yet the heat. If it was over 30, the transport would have to be postponed for the night. The convoy is moving. It is 470 km to go. Mihai Vasile, well-known Romanian photo reporter and artist, is taking pictures of the whole action. We will meet him again in Bärenwald Müritz. We will be monitoring the behaviour of both females from Leszno, while Mihai will be hunting with his camera for interesting scenes of bears’ life in semi-natural conditions.

We stop every two hours and checki whether everything is well with bears. The sticker on the car with an inscription - “Tieretransport” - is rising the interest of people on car parks and gas stations. Basia doesn't want to drink, Kasia does drink willingly. Finally after 11 p.m. we are leaving the motorway No. 19 leading to Rostock to drive the road No. 198. Still a dozen or so km in front of us, and between Stuer and Bad Stuer we are turning into the route to Zislow. After some moments we can see fences on the left. We reach Bärenwald Müritz before midnight. In a conference hall the food is waiting, even "Bärenfett" ("fat of a bear") - vegetarian lard with apples. As a matter of fact everything there is vegetarian and tasty. Bears will wait for the unloading until early morning hours, now it is too dark for the release. Conversations, happy atmosphere that everything until now went well.

But people are tired, many of them are from Hamburg, where is the main office of the organization. It does not make sense to get back home, the unloading will begin at 6 a.m. They are lying down to sleep on the floor in a hall and in other rooms. We are going to the hotel we are staying in for a next few days. The hotel is in the Bad Stuer spa in front of the north tip of the Plauer Lake. Only 1.5 km from Bärenwald, by foot through forest even less than a kilometer.


First steps

On Saturday, 18th of June at 6.00 a.m. the whole team is ready. The car with bears drives closer to temporary enclosures. Bears will be put into two neighbouring enclosures. Younger Kasia will be in bigger of ca. 360 m2, and Basia in one of 250 m2. The enclosure for Kasia is deeper inside the fences, so the transport cage will be carried to the enclosure for Basia and there put closer to the door linking both places so that the animal comes out directly to its enclosure. Then Basia will be released into her enclosure from transport cage. Releasing the animal out straight from the lane is too dangerous. The bear when leaving off the cage can try to turn back and leave outside. It is unlikely, but safety is the most important here. The cage doors has  a mechanism installed and so it can be opened with the long cord through the fence from the outside of the enclosure. Just before those procedures the cage with Kasia is being transported to scale. Then same is happening with Basia. 


The cage door goes up and Kasia is running out of the cage. At once she is starting an intensive work with nose. She is smelling, tasting, and checking the enclosure. Basia is behaving similar, but almost immediately she starts eating apples and pears. However at first she will make few steps very carefully. For the very first time in her 27 years of life she fells something else than concrete under her feet, therefore raising legs a little bit higher than normally. For the two first days female bears are getting various fruits, carrots, some dog pellets and a few slices of bread.

Food is being scattered into the enclosure two times per day – such scattering stimulates animals to explore. Apples, pears, a kiwi fruits, peeled oranges (the ones are eaten as first –  Basia’s favourite , she always starts with an orange), papayas, avocado (Basia had squeezed the pulp to the last peel – then her nose was fully covered with avocado), carrots, cucumbers are now in new, enriched menu. There is also a trout being given once per few days. They are eating it by manipulating very carefully in order to tear out small pieces. Water is being given from the hose several times per day. Both females are playing with falling water. Kasia is playing also in the stream of water, Basia rather prefers to avoid it, but is digging in the mud with visible pleasure.

In the enclosure of Kasia there is a small hill in which the den created from the concrete circle is located. Kasia discovers already at the first day that this hill is an excellent lookout site. The next day we are finding her in the hole dug up on the peak and observing the surrounding. In her enclosure there are two big poplars and an oak. The one became a source of additional food. Kasia stood on two limbs and pulled branches down, taking leaves into her mouth. Basia has some bushes and two thrown alder trees in her enclosure. This part of the sanctuary, in which females are placed, was opened on 15th of April 2011. The grass is not yet fully grown, but one can see it gradually reviving after the construction works. Of course there is also a transport cage on which Basia is letting out her emotions. We could see it already in the next morning after the day of released. This morning we heard a noise from a distance, and we found Basia next to the cage turned upside down and her shaking and pushing it.


Basia's first contact with the soil is most interesting. We still remember how Mago the bear, a male from Wroclaw zoo, was behaving. After release from the cage in which he spent 10 years, Mago dug up the whole enclosure within a few first days. It is same with Basia - at the beginning she is digging in various spots. It is clear that she is surprised when under her paws the soil is sliding down to the hollow. In the next days it turns out that especially eager she is digging in mud. After two days she dug to the wire net in soil that secures the enclosure. We are observing both bears all day with the short lunch break. After a few days we can formulate preliminary conclusions. Carsten Hertwig - the head of competence center for bears in Vier Pfoten - is asking about it. Basia is quite well, most of the time devoting to the exploration of the area and sleep. She is trying to pay back herself with rest the first twenty-four hours, when was so involved in exploring the new environment. 

On the second day her head is still dropping down and Basia tries to sleep more. On the third day she is behaving normally. To new things, like bears from the enclosure on the other side, keepers or water, she answered with the interest and the carefulness, but without fear. Kasia often tries to approach Basia, but Basia is still aggressive toward. Kasia does not react to the presence of bears visible in the neigbouring enclosure (she is separated by the lane and Basia’s enclosure), but when on the other side almost black Masha appears in the adjacent enclosure, Kasia is in panic and running nervous. She is looking at the adjacent enclosure, then running up her hill, waiting to look if everything is OK on the other side, smelling and then again running. Masha walks away. Together with three other bears she has a few hectares at her disposal. Sheila, one of the keepers, came to calm Kasia. It turns out that the day before she also behaved in this way. Sheila knows every bear very well and notices everything.

Both bears will stay in temporary enclosures next 2-3 weeks, then metal gate will go up. Kasia and Basia will enter into the enclosure of 10 000 square meters (1 ha), with forest, grass and quite a big pond. Since then, they will become real bears.

It is time to go back home. After many all-day observations, we are saying goodbye to Sabine, the head of the keepers, as well as to her dog. Sabine is showing us her pictures taken when the dog was living on the streets of Romania and feeding on garbage. We are looking at horrifying pictures of bones covered with skin. Today it is lucky and cheerful dog. She was lucky to meet Sabine in her life. We are coming back with many hours of films recorded and over one thousand of pictures from Bärenwald Müritz. We got to know people devoted to animals, sensitive, but professional. One isn't ruling out the other. Those features can coexist in one person.


Update – after four months

We are back in Bärenwald Müritz after 4 months to see how both bears behave in the new enclosure.

The enclosure is of about 10 000 square meters (1 hectare). Basia was kept in Leszno on  35 sqm, Kasia on about 90. Today Basia has ca. 286 times larger area at her disposal. The whole central part of the enclosure is covered by a pine forest with a lot of bushes. Trees which follen down were left in the forest. The enclosure is in a  shape similar to a rectangle, a local road is a border on one side, an alley for visitors on two other sides and the second enclosure. Around the forest there is an open space zone, and a pond on the southern side.

Basia and Kasia together
In Leszno both females were housed separately. They were aggressive towards each other. In temporary enclosures Basia was still dominating and Kasia could not even approach the fence dividing both bears without being unfriendly threatened by Basia.
Basia was released on 13th of July, 2011. Immediately after entering the new area (through a special pass under alley) Basia had taken a bath for the very first time in her life. She was afraid to swim, so only put the fords in the pond. In the next days Basia had learned to enter the mini-enclosure - a small, fenced part off of the range, where bears go for a short time when staff are scattering food and hiding it at special spots and enrichment devices.
Kasia left her temporary enclosure after next 9 days. She was definitely more nervous and timid than Basia. Immediately after entering the enclosure there was a small clash between bears.

After 4 months
Today Basia and Kasia fully enjoy the space available in the enclosure. It's hard to believe that they are the same animals that were only moving back and forth in concrete cages in Leszno. During our stay we did not observe abnormal behaviour. Both bears do get close to each other at a distance of several meters. They spend much time searching for food. This season they eat huge quantities of acorns. They have to get ready for winter, the first in their lifes to be spent in semi-natural conditions.

Update 28th of April 2015
Kasia died on 27
th of April 2015 at the age of 20.The reason of death were a gastrointestinal infection and intestinal inflammation. The symptoms were visible after hibernation. Despite intensive veterinary care she passed away.

Update 9th of September 2015
  Basia died on 7
th of September 2015 at the age of 32.The reason of death were a hepatitis and lymph glands inflammation. Despite intensive veterinary care she passed away.



Zoo is closed today

 The team of veterinarians from Berlin has already immobilised a lot of wild animals


Carsten Hertwig - the head of the competence center for bears in Vier Pfoten explains to German TV the purpose of transport 

Doctors are going inside as first

Bears that live on concrete often have problems with their feet

Kasia is leaving her cage

X-ray examination. Patrick Boncourt (in blue t-shirt), who in Vier Pfoten is responsible for bear projects



Dr Göritz is making an injection with antidote that will cause that Kasia will wake up

The cage is being moved to car

Both cages are already in the car

Releasing in Bärenwald Müritz is starting on Saturday 11 June at 6.00 a.m. At first Kasia is going to a weight

First steps in Bärenwald Müritz

Kasia, first steps in new place

Neighbors are obviously interested in new bears

Basia is going out from the cage

Basia, a bit confused few seconds after leaving the cage

A minute after leaving the cage Basia eats some fruits

Basia - the first time in her 27-year life has touched soil instead of concrete 

Kasia is friendly towards Basia, but Basia reacts with a warning grow
on closer contact

Intensive exploration of the enclosure lastedwhole day and night. The next day Basia had to rest


Basia uses the transport cage for playing



Attempt to push

Basia tries to open door to a big enclosure

Kasia eats trout on the hill

Kasia dug a hole on the top of a hill and observes surroundings

Basia is playing with a stone

The stone is moving

Sheila does the showering several times a day

Kasia likes water

Something to eat

Kasia eats a cucumber, Basia likes papaya

Four months later

Basia in the morning

Kasia is running

Basia in forest

Where is Basia?

Basia is searching for food

There is a pond in the enclosure

Basia in water

Basia is eating an apple

Basia in afternoon sun

Unbelieveable? Basia makes way for Kasia but both females keep a distance of few meters


Kasia during a morning round and exploration

Kasia is searching for acorns from nearby oaks

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