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Bear Who Spent 2 Years Living In Cage Filled With Garbage Is Finally Freed

She was being fed soda and candy — but she just had her first real meal.

For two long years, a brown bear named Balu was trapped inside a small, dirty cage. She was miserable.

“The enclosure was no bigger than 4 or 5 square meters [43 to 53 square feet],” Lis Key, PR and communications manager for International Animal Rescue (IAR), the group that helped save Balu, told The Dodo. “There was no shelter from the elements. The enclosure was filthy. It’s unlikely that anyone ever cleaned it out, so poor Balu was living on mud, urine and feces. It must have smelt terrible.”

Balu, who is a little over 2 years old, was owned by a man living in a property in Artashat, Armenia. While it’s not clear why the man was keeping Balu, Key suspects he viewed Balu as a kind of “trophy” or “status symbol.”

Brown bear locked up in cage
Balu inside her small, dirty cage in Armenia | IAR

Whatever the reason for keeping her, the owner wasn’t taking good care of Balu. Besides being locked up in a cage, Balu had a heavy chain attached to a collar around her neck, and she wasn’t getting regular food or water. The one time the owner did give Balu a meal in front of the rescue team, it consisted of soft drinks and candy, according to IAR.

Sadly, Balu’s situation is far from unusual. It’s estimated that more than 80 bears are trapped in similar cages throughout Armenia — some are displayed as attractions at restaurants, tourist hotspots or bus depots, while others are hidden away in dark warehouses.

Last year, IAR teamed up with the Foundation for the Preservation of Wildlife and Cultural Assets (FPWC) to launch The Great Bear Rescue, a project that aimed to rescue every single captive bear across Armenia. The team has already saved dozens of bears, moving them to licensed sanctuaries.

Brown bear locked up in small dirty cage

Last Friday, it was Balu’s turn to be rescued. Team members from IAR, FPWC and the local police department traveled to Artashat to take Balu into their care. A local Armenian TV crew turned up, too, and onlookers gathered to watch. But Balu’s owner refused to surrender her.

“The ‘owner’ was keeping her in shocking conditions of squalor and neglect — and yet he clearly thought those conditions were acceptable and saw no reason why the bear shouldn’t stay there,” Key said. “I imagine, too, that perhaps it was a matter of pride to him not to be forced to surrender his bear when so many people were watching.”

After some arguing, the owner finally agreed to release Balu, and the rescue team immediately got to work — they sedated Balu, and once she was asleep, the team entered to remove her from her cage.

Brown bear locked up inside cage
Balu after being sedated — once she's asleep, the rescue team will remove her from the cage | IAR

“The most emotional aspect of the rescue was the removal of the cruel collar and chain around Balu’s neck,” Key said. “That moment symbolized the end of her nightmare past and her first step towards the new life she deserves, free from cruelty and neglect and full of kindness and compassion.”

Balu is currently in quarantine, where she will stay for 21 days, but Key reports that she’s doing well. “We do know that she woke up OK from the sedation,” she said. “She took a drink of water and then later she was fed some decent food for the first time. So her recovery is going well so far, which is a relief.”

Once she’s released from quarantine, Balu will be moved to a bear sanctuary in the mountains. Yet Balu still has a long road ahead of her — the IAR team is particularly concerned about her health.

Brown bear being carried out of cage
Balu being carried out of her cage by the rescue team | IAR

“We have not yet received a veterinary report on Balu, but I think, sadly, it’s fair to assume that her physical health will have been compromised by her time in captivity and her poor diet — not to mention her mental health which certainly has been affected by two years living in such shocking confinement,” Key said. “On the plus side, she is still a young bear and we hope will recover from the terrible treatment she has suffered.”

The team will continue rescuing bears like Balu across Armenia.

“Thanks to the efforts on the ground of our partners FPWC ... and the support of the Armenian police, Balu the bear’s misery is now at an end,” Alan Knight, CEO of IAR, said in a statement. “When we launched The Great Bear Rescue in October last year, we pledged to end the suffering of all the caged bears in Armenia — and today I’m pleased to say that the fulfillment of that pledge has moved one step closer.”

To help IAR rescue more bears in Armenia and get them to sanctuaries, you can make a donation.