Bearing the Brunt of Civilisation

This is Mashutka, a brown bear from the Four Paws Domazhyr Sanctuary. Photo: April McLennan.  

The brown bears of Ukraine have been the victims of abuse for numerous years. But with the country turning their back on Russia and moving towards the European Union, their future is beginning to look more bright. 

Mashutka paces back and forth in her spacious enclosure, retracing the same five meter stretch of land. The dirt in this area has been worn away, creating a clear trail. She continues walking on this same spot for around thirty minutes, oblivious to the rest of the land that is now her home.  

Mashutka is one of the brown bears that Four Paws Sanctuary has rescued from a baiting station in Ukraine, where she was chained to a tree and chased by hunting dogs. The trauma of this experience has left a long-lasting impact on the quality of her life.   

But this isn’t the only abuse the brown bears have fallen victim to. Held captive, they are forced to perform at restaurants, zoos, circuses and for people keeping them as pets.  

In Ukraine, it is still legal for brown bears to be used as a form of entertainment. Approximately 100 of these bears are currently living in poor captive conditions, with majority of them confined to small cages next to hotels, restaurants and petrol stations.   

“Humans treat wild animals like entertainment and when they come to a restaurant with the kids sometimes they think it is nice to have a bear around in a small cage, who will dance, or who will just show up and you can give him some alcohol,” says Taras Boik0, Deputy Director at Four Paws bear sanctuary Domazhyr. 

 In 2011 keeping private bears as pets at home became illegal, however Dr Volodymyr Domashlinets, Head of the Fauna Protection Division at the Department of Biodiversity Protection and Biosafety Ministry of Ecology and Natural Resources of Ukraine, explains that, “A number of bears are still kept in captivity in poor conditions. The process of their rescue is ongoing; however, current rescue centers have exceeded their capacity to accept new bears and are trying to enhance their facilities.” 

Up until 2015, Ukraine’s brown bears were legally allowed to be used as bait for hunting dogs with the dogs being able to make contact with the bears. Unfortunately, this practise is still illegally happening today.  

“They can be kept in hunting stations in tiny cages and of course hunters hide them and we don’t really have proof if they are used. Sometimes we have video but it is very hard to prove it and they can use the bears,” says Boiko. 

Russia: Big, Brutal & Clumsy   

It also must be noted where the practise of keeping bears in captivity originated from as it has been a norm in Slavic countries since ancient times. Therefore, by banning the use of bears for entertainment, Ukraine may be seen as breaking the boundaries of their cultural normalities in order to comply with western values.  

“So, it (the bear) was a God who lives in the forest and maybe also the owner, the lord of the forest. Now some people think that if they have a bear in the private yard or near the restaurant, they dominate this wild animal and become stronger,” says Boiko. 

Russia has been referred to as the brown bear numerous times throughout history. It was their mascot during the 1890 Moscow Olympic games and the bear is a symbol of the Russia Untied party. Russia is also referred to as being a bear by the West especially in England and America, although the meaning differs sometimes to be that of “big, brutal and clumsy,” while Russia tends to disregard the latter.  

By banning the use of bears in Ukraine, it may be seen by many as the country cutting ties with Russia and turning towards the European Union. 

This is Mashutka, a brown bear from the Four Paws Domazhyr Sanctuary. Photo: April McLennan. 

Looking towards to European Union

The use of bears for private use in Western Europe has been frowned upon for many years, with Ukraine attempting to comply with the European Union standards as they will need to have the correct legislation in place if they want to join the Union in the future.  

Dr Volodymyr Domashlinets says, “It seems that the legislation on animal welfare in Ukraine is mostly compliant with that in the EU, the challenge is its proper implementation and enforcement, not having sufficient resources to do so. However, this problem is in the Government’s focus and it is hoped that it will be progressing in a good way.” 

However, Taras Boiko from the Four Paws bear sanctuary feels that more needs to be done. He believes the problem in Ukraine is not the people that are keeping the bears in their yard as a tool to earn money to provide for their families.  

 The main problem is linked to the general hunters lobby and the lobby of rich people who do not want the situation to change as they are able to keep their wild animals at places such as baiting stations without any consequences.  

According to Boiko, “No, it’s not enough legislation, I really hope that it will be synchronised and adapted to the European laws, but we have a very strong hunters lobby in the parliament and the government.” 

He hopes that legislation around bears in Ukraine will be changed step by step. Now that the use of bears at baiting stations has been banned, the next step would be a ban on keeping bears at baiting stations. Then restricted use of bears in circuses. With the future goal being a total ban on using animals in circuses and near restaurants.  

Boiko explains that whether Ukraine joins the European Union or not, the laws need to change.  

“We have to change these laws and then the European Union will consider more seriously the possibility of Ukraine joining. Because now we are not about to be close candidates to join the European Union,” he says.

We have to do a lot to become a proper candidate, that’s why I wouldn’t see that it depends on being part of the European Union. We are pretty far from the European Union now.”  

If Ukraine had previously complied with Western standards, then Mashutka wouldn’t have lived the traumatic life that she did. Although she was lucky enough to have been rescued and is now receiving proper care, she can never be released back into the wild and will spend the rest of her days pacing up and down the fence line.  

Video Footage & Editing by April McLennan
Bear Bating Clip: Four Paws International