'Saddest Bears In Europe' Have No Idea They’re About To Be Free

"I saw many suffering bears, but I have never seen anything like this."

They're sometimes called "beer bears" because their diet consists mainly of bread and beer.

But the group working to free them from their dismal lives more aptly calls them "The Saddest Bears in Europe."

There are about 50 of these "display" animals who serve as living, breathing exhibits scattered throughout Albania. Chained their entire lives, they're little more than tourist fodder.

Four Paws International

Except this week, thanks to the efforts of Four Paws International and the Albanian government, a couple of those bears found freedom.

Tomi was the first unchained. His "habitat" was a concrete cage, flanked by toilets at a restaurant in the town of Ulza.

Four Paws International

After someone reported the bear's condition, a team from Four Paws, along with the Albanian Ministry of Environment, descended on the site.

Four Paws International

And moments later, Tomi breathed freedom for perhaps the first time in his life.

"Tomi is in a very poor state," Carsten Hertwig, a bear expert at Four Paws, said in a press release sent to The Dodo. "His teeth are badly damaged, and he has injuries to his upper body. It's high time he was brought out of this horrible place."

Tomi was tranquilized and treated by a veterinary team on the spot. When he woke up, he was at the Tirana Zoo - a place hardly known for its compassionate care of animals.

But Tomi will wake from his nightmare in increments. First, at the zoo, his rescuers will tend to his medical needs. After that, Tomi will fully awaken to his new life at the Prishtina Bear Sanctuary in Kosovo.

That's where bears rescued from around the region live a very different kind of life.

Four Paws International

The sanctuary already hosts 13 bears on 40 acres of land.

Four Paws International

Tomi isn't the only Albanian bear who will soon be joining their ranks.

When rescuers found Pashuk, he was languishing in a too-small cage, semi-strangled by a collar that had burrowed deep into his neck.

"I saw many suffering bears, but I have never seen anything like this," Hertwig notes in the press release. "The chain was grown in so deeply that the skin had already grown over it. His owners had put Pashuk on the chain when he was still small, locked him in the shed and never removed the chain ever since."

Four Paws International

But Pashuk followed Tomi's path to freedom this week. After the collar was broken and rescuers saw to his urgent medical needs, he too was transported to the Tirana Zoo - a waypoint before he arrives at the Prishtina Bear Sanctuary.

Four Paws International

It took only a couple of days to end a lifetime of abuse for these bears. And soon, they will wake up and smell the freedom of a sprawling sanctuary.

Four Paws International

But dozens more remain locked away at makeshift zoos. It will take many more days - and all the help in the world - before The Saddest Bears in Europe are finally freed. You can join this fight by signing a petition here. And support Four Paws in its mission by making a donation here.