The appalling condition of two blind, alcoholic bears held in captivity in Russia, highlighted by the struggle to intervene on their behalf, has given animal cruelty within the country a grisly face.
Animal welfare activists are working to relocate the bears from their captivity as a restaurant attraction to a rehabilitation facility in Romania, where experts will treat their ailments and dependency on alcohol.
The bears have been held for more than 20 years in a small, garbage-strewn cage outside of a Georgian restaurant in the Black Sea resort town of Sochi, which hosted the 2014 Winter Olympics.
The restaurant's owner, Dzhenkis Uzaroshvili, allowed patrons to feed the bears and give them alcoholic beverages, blithely insisting that "beer is good for them" because of Sochi's climate. The spectacle of the drunk bears amused customers and became routine.
Diners would also park their cars in front of the cage at night and beam their headlights as they entertained themselves by throwing garbage, junk food, and cans of beer at the bears. This sad practice caused one of the animals to become completely blind and the other to suffer from partial blindness.
"It is not my concern what visitors are doing to the bears," Uzaroshvili remarked to reporters.
Though the enforcement of animal welfare laws in Russia is notoriously lax, the fight to liberate the bears scored an important victory earlier this month when a Russian court ordered the pair's release. They will unfortunately remain in the filthy restaurant cage until March, when the order takes effect.
The Big Hearts Foundation, a London-based organization that aids abused animals in Russia, attempted without success to find facilities within the country that would attend to the bears. It then canvassed animal centers across Europe.
"It's a very expensive process to move them abroad," Anna Kogan, who created the foundation, told the BBC.
The difficulty of treating the bears' alcoholism proved overwhelmingly prohibitive — Kogan has acknowledged that there is a good chance the bears will not survive the treatment — but a center in Romania indicated its willingness to try.
"The people there have worked with dancing bears who had similar problems," Kogan said. "It can be done."
Big Hearts is coordinating and funding the bears' eventual transfer and rehabilitation with help from the Brigitte Bardot Foundation, which promotes animal rights and protection.
David Garshelis, co-chair of the Bear Specialist Group, a project of the International Union of the Conservation of Nature and the Species Survival Commission, told VICE News that he could not recall another circumstance where bears were intentionally encouraged by humans to drink booze.
"I suspect it's not unusual for them to consume alcohol of some sort," he told VICE News. "Bears eat fruits in the wild, and when that fruit drops on the ground and ferments, it would be alcoholic to some degree."
He explained that Indian Sloth Bears have been known to display intoxicated behavior after consuming mahua flowers, which are plentiful in the plains and forests of the subcontinent and used to make liquor.
"These are normally very aggressive bears — more aggressive than grizzlies," Garshelis said. "But when they consume these flowers, they fall into a very sleepy mode and come up to people. Going way back to the early 1800s, there are accounts of this with British foreigners in India."
Pat Craig, the founder and executive director of the Wild Animal Sanctuary in Keenesburg, Colorado, has worked with bears for 30 years. He studied bears who became addicted to nicotine after years of performing as smoking bears in a circus. While he's not aware of scientific research focusing on addiction among bears to alcohol, his experience gives him no reason to believe the Russian bears will behave any differently than humans when forced to cut back on their drinking habit.
"Bears are pretty outgoing in terms of expressing their likes and dislikes," Craig told VICE News, noting that the bears' caretakers will be able to determine the degree to which the animals are affected by alcohol withdrawal from their behavior. He pointed out that even after a year of being weaned from tobacco, his nicotine-addicted bears would become enraged if they sensed that a visitor to the sanctuary was carrying a tobacco product.
"My plan would be to initially continue to give them beer, because the move is going to be especially traumatic for them," Craig said, speaking of a possible treatment approach. "Then I'd try to address the core alcohol addiction and after two to three weeks, I'd start cutting down, and then go from there."
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