Carsten Hertwig's life's work is to free animals kept in appalling conditions and transport them to happy new homes

Saving Ari and Rina

Caged bear rescued by Carsten Hertwig

Ari and Rina paced frantically back and forth in their tiny concrete enclosure. The two bears were dirty and dishevelled, hair matted and falling out from years spent in their filthy cage. They’d been suffering in this mini zoo in the south of Kosovo for far too long, their only stimulation the barking and whining of wild dogs and other distressed animals in nearby cages.

Carsten Hertwig paced in the car park outside, anxiously waiting for the signal to enter. As the head of animal welfare organisation Four Paws’ bear division, he was responsible for the rescue of Ari and Rina, and he knew the zookeepers weren’t going to give up their prized animals freely.

Carsten gave a sign and a team of Kosovo police charged in first to handle the disgruntled owners, as journalists jostled to get a decent shot. As Carsten nervously waited, more police with bigger guns began streaming into the zoo. What if something goes wrong? thought Carsten. Finally, an officer emerged, rifle in hand.

“It’s safe,” he exclaimed, and Carsten dashed in, desperate to get the animals out.

There were Ari and Rina, huddled in the cage, terrified and shaking. On Carsten’s command, the two bears were tranquilised. Then, with a set of bolt cutters, he cut open the cage’s lock and entered. With the help of his team, Carsten gently loaded the animals onto a pair of giant stretchers and carried them to the two ambulances waiting outside. He stroked Rina’s furry cheek as he bore her out of her nightmare.

“It’s OK,” he whispered, “you’re going to a better place.”

 

New home

Today, Ari and Rina live at the Prishtina Bear Sanctuary in Kosovo, where they happily roam, forage and play in the reserve’s 40 acres of pristine wilderness.

As the director of the bears division of Four Paws for the past nine years, Carsten has made freeing Europe’s captive bears and transporting them to happy new homes his life’s work.

“This is my destiny,” says the lanky 48-year-old as he strolls down a path at Müritz Bear Park, a bear reserve two hours north of Berlin in Germany and one of five Four Paws bear sanctuaries across Europe that he manages. As he walks, a female European brown bear pokes her furry head out of the dense foliage to get a look at her saviour, then begins pawing at the soil.

“Mascha!” exclaims Carsten, bending his tall frame to peer through the fence. “See how she loves to dig!”

Carsten knows the habits of each of the 68 European brown bears under his care like they were his own kids. It’s a number he’s worked tirelessly to increase, and one that promises to grow as he sets his sights on captive bears beyond Europe. “After nearly ten years, I can see success,” says Carsten, gazing at Mascha playing in the dirt. “But there’s still so much to do.”

 

Carsten's calling

Carsten Hertwig on his calling in life

Carsten remembers the exact moment that bears became his destiny.

It was a chilly February afternoon in 2005. A born nature lover, Carsten had grown up in the German city of Ulm by the Danube. Eventually, he made his career designing and managing the interpretive centres of several prominent German nature reserves, including one for the World Wildlife Fund.

But on this particular morning, he found himself between jobs. Casually flipping through a Hamburg paper, Carsten happened upon an advertisement that set his heart racing. A sanctuary for bears rescued from captivity was to be built in Müritz National Park, just an hour’s drive from where he lived with his wife. They needed someone to run the operation.

I’d be perfect for this, thought Carsten, and after several interviews, park management agreed. Carsten was responsible for the design of the 40-acre park and its centre, but he also had another responsibility: finding and rescuing the bears that would call it home.

He began studying the laws governing bear keeping in countries across the European Union. He learned that in Germany, keeping is still legal, but only if the bear is afforded a certain amount of space and correct security measures are taken.

He quickly identified many small zoos keeping bears in inappropriate conditions. His crusade was helped by the fact that German public perceptions about captive bears are so negative that many keepers actually requested Carsten confiscate their bears.

But in countries such as Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, Croatia and Ukraine, public attitudes to private keeping are far more accepting, and owners are much less willing to let their animals go without a fight. Carsten identified dozens of bears held chained in tiny cages next to restaurants or petrol stations, forced to perform tricks or drink alcohol to entertain. In the worst cases, bears were forced to fight dogs in the vicious practice of bear baiting.

 

First impressions

Freeing the bears

It was at the Bear Park in Müritz that Carsten met his first bear face to face, an enormous male named Lothar rescued from a German animal park. As Carsten watched, Lothar gingerly placed his giant paw down on grassy ground after more than 15 years of treading only on concrete. Incredible, thought Carsten, awed by the humanity of the great beast.

Then Lothar brushed against the electric fence that separated them and reared up at the shock, all 47 stone of towering muscle and fur, before dropping to the ground and exploding into a run in the other direction. “I saw just how big and fast he could be,” said Carsten, with respect.

As Carsten got to know the bears at the reserve in Müritz, he saw again and again how ill-suited the animals are to captivity. As foragers accustomed to roaming large distances, bears quickly begin to display abnormal behaviours when held captive in small spaces. Many of the bears Carsten saved would act strangely long after they were released into the park, pacing in repetitive circles or swaying from side to side.

“It’s called stereotypic behavior,” says Carsten, frowning at the thought. As Carsten’s love of the animal grew, so did his vision, and he turned his sights towards a country with some of the most horrendous bear captivities in Europe—Kosovo.

It was there that he met Kassandra. A “restaurant bear”, she’d been purchased as an attraction, fated to sit in her enclosure exposed to the elements. When the restaurant went under, Kassandra’s owner simply abandoned her in her filthy cage to die. It was clear to Carsten that she was starving and dehydrated. Her once-lustrous fur had long ago faded and matted, and she paced the concrete floor of her tiny nine-by six-foot cage frantically, pausing only to press her snout between the rusted metal bars.

“Something must be done for her,” he said, staring at the once-majestic animal’s figure. “Immediately.”

 

Constitutional change

A free bear in Kosovo

Luckily for Kassandra, Carsten had already been advocating for a total ban of private bear-keeping in Kosovo. He negotiated with high-level government officials until finally, in 2010, the Kosovar government agreed to outlaw private bear keeping. The victory created a new conundrum though: there was nowhere adequate to put the illegally kept bears that needed rescuing—and that included Kassandra.

Carsten leapt into action, identifying a 40-acre swathe of unused forested land an hour from Kosovo’s capital Prishtina and, after gaining permission to use the land for free, ordering the construction of a reserve.

Though Kassandra, Rina and Ari were moved to the new park successfully, not all of Carsten’s attempts in Kosovo ended happily. One owner, hearing of the imminent seizure of his two 15-month-old bears Rambo and Luta, quickly sold them for 500 euros. The purchaser passed them on to a group of men who killed both bears before the authorities arrived, harvesting their gall bladders, livers and hearts, which can fetch large sums on the black market. The twin cubs’ bodies were found dismembered and discarded in a rubbish dump on the same afternoon Carsten made his daring rescue of Ari and Rina.

 

Nature recreated

Using the reserve to recreate natural habitat

But more often than not Carsten is successful, and the animals that he has saved live in conditions meticulously designed to mimic the wild. Walking around the huge Müritz reserve, Carsten’s affection for the animals is obvious.

“Look, there’s Balou and Siggy!” He points to a large bear lying in the grass, and another resting his head on a stump at a quizzical angle. Carsten gazes at the happy bear with a smile on his face. Then the two animals turn and lumber into the wilderness and out of sight.

“This is one of our philosophies— that our bears can hide or choose to be seen,” says Carsten. The animals have plenty of space, foliage and landscaping to hide from visitors, should they desire privacy.

In the wild, bears spend much of the day foraging for food, so Carsten and his team make sure the bears work for their meals, hiding apples in trees, or placing snacks in containers slung from ropes that the bears must bat and swat before the food is released.

 

Future focus

Looking after our bears

Carsten is working now to end the private keeping of bears in illegal captivity in Bulgaria, Croatia and Serbia, and is fighting the ownership of dancing bears and restaurant bears in Albania too.

He’s also working on establishing a new sanctuary for baiting bears in the Ukraine and even a sanctuary in Vietnam, where the cruel harvesting of bile from live bears for medicinal purposes is still everyday practice.

“We need to change public opinion so that these practices end,” says Carsten. “We’re setting the stage so that future generations of bears can live happy, peaceful lives.”

All images copyright and courtesy of Four Paws

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