Germany loves bears. You’ll find them everywhere. On city emblems, on flags, on logos, outside of shops. Bears large, bears small and bears of in every conceivable style and colour. The star of the show in Berlin is the infamous Welcome Bear and you wont go more than a couple of streets without spotting one. The image of the bear is celebrated here. But what about the real thing?
Well, there are hundreds of zoos and tierparks across Germany where you can see a bear or two in the flesh. But for an alternative experience you need to find an alternative attraction. Over to you, The Alternative Bärenpark, in Worbis.
This place is different to other animal parks in that it aims to educate as well as entertain. The animals are kept in enclosures designed to create as natural an environment as possible for them, rather than an easy viewing experience for the visitor.But the clever design of the enclosure means there are plenty of opportunities to view the residents. A teaching trail educates about types of bears and the abuses they face. Exhibits include bear enclosures of old and a taxidermy example of a bear used for its bile. It packs an emotional punch.
But if the exhibits are hard evidence of what has been wrong, the rescued bears playing and interacting in their vast and natural enclosure are a breath of fresh air and hope for the future. All the bears here have been rescued from abusive or inappropriate conditions.
The bears find their way here from all sorts of beginnings. Some rescued from circus life, some have found sanctuary here having been abandoned. I absolutely lost my heart to a pair of bears by the name of Max and Emma. Both were born in the 1990s in the bear pit of Bern-something I had no knowledge of previously.
They were both then passed onto an ‘experience restaurant’ in Biberstein, where they existed for eight years in a 36m square concrete bear pit. Diners were able to ‘feed’ the bears by throwing them scraps. Happily, pressure from animal rights groups led to the bears being brought as a pair to the Sanctuary of Worbis in 2000 where they are now happily settled.
Although they have found a happy ending, years in cruel captivity has left its mark. Emma follows Max round obsessively and keepers at the sanctuary have to manage the relationship between them carefully. Every now and then ,to give Max some relief, separation has to be enforced. Very sad to think that this beautiful creature cannot live normally and without anxiety because she was used for entertainment.
The park made an excellent day out and seeing the bears was a genuinely touching experience. I thought about them for a long time after we left. The visit made me reflect on my own views on things and on the power we as travellers hold to accept or reject certain things as acceptable. We can vote with our feet. With our money.
More than anything, I left hoping that Max & Emma can enjoy the rest of their lives in freedom in rural Germany. Even if it has to be sometimes together , and sometimes apart.