Animals … who doesn’t love them? We all want to see them close by. Cuddling the babies and interacting with wild animals are dreams most of us are cherishing ever since childhood.

Unfortunately businessmen are taking advantage of our weak hearts and those poor animals.

Wild tigers are caught and kept caged and drugged so tourists can safely cuddle them. Baby elephants are mistreated severely so we can ride their backs and enjoy interaction we experience as friendship. Baby desert foxes are grabbed away from their parents and used by tourists to take pictures. After they aren’t cute and fluffy anymore they are released back into the desert with low chances of survival.

And in the Balkans and Albania they use bears; they make them dance, you can take your picture with them and in some cases restaurant owners even let you feed them coffee or Rakija.

In he last years government has gone through a lot of effort to stop this behavior.

But one big problem has risen: bears that have been kept hostage like this lose all instincts on how to feed themselves. They bite. They are passive. But worst of all maybe …. having lived most of their lives amongst humans makes them return to humans. Only imagine what would happen when a hungry bear enters a playground …

Therefore sanctuaries are being built. But without our help and ignoring our own childhood dreams government is up to an impossible challenge.
So how can we fulfill our dreams about animal interaction without hurting the ones that need our protection?

Here are our best picks on how to enjoy the bears of the balkan without causing them damage.

  1. Be a volunteer (or visitor) in one of the bear sanctuaries you can find in the Balkans.

Over the years the Balkans have established some sanctuaries to reintroduce bears again to wild live. These are big wild areas with greens, rocks and water where bears can live naturally but fenced. This way they are safe and humans are safe too. A team of caretakers make sure they eat and stay in good health.

They also function as a kind of big specialized FREE zoo where visitors can see the animals while taking a walk around. It is not as close up and it sure takes a search sometimes but volunteers will help you find them.

Each year they ask for volunteers to guide visitors, fix fences or simply care for the bears. They also open cosy cafés to raise extra funds.

BEST BEAR SANCTUARIES

* Bear Sanctuary Prishtina, Kosovo: a very new and more elaborate sanctuary, they are also sheltering animals from Albania.

* Bear Sanctuary Kuterevo, Croatia: a really boho and unique spot with volunteers from all over the world. You can contact them upfront or just stop by and ask if they need help.

* Dancing Bear Park Belitsa, Bulgarija: a park where the bears don’t need to dance anymore. You can visit with very knowledgable guides.

Kuterevo Bear Sanctuary
Volunteering at Kuterevo Bear Sanctuary
  1. Take a hike in the mountains.

If you really want to see the animals in their natural habitat you can take a hike through the mountains and forests. The Balkans are beautiful and will treat you to some spectacular sights. However, if your intention is to spot the bears, you need to be in the right places at the right time.

Bears usually are most active around dusk and dawn. Late afternoon is the time they often take their baths. To know about the best spots, make sure to ask the park rangers. They are more than qualified to help you get the best views.

Because you will need to be in de mountains at crazy times camping or a mountain hut is the perfect solution.

Albanian Alps: Hike, bike or ride the mountains with a local guide.

BEST BEAR SPOTTING PARKS:

* Gorski Kotar, Croatia: Not very known around people, but the Plitvice Lakes that are part of it will probably ring a bell. In this national park you will have the best chance of encountering wild bears. There is even a path called: Bear Path.

* Tara National Park, Serbia: One of the prettiest regions of Serbia, clear waters, high mountains, forests and of course bears. Since it isn’t yet ‘contaminated’ by tourists, getting round is harder, but also worth it. Make sure to find a guide or detailed description on where to hike.

* Theth National Park, Albania: One of the most remote places in Europe. Great wild life, hospitality and clear waters for a swim. Make sure to inform the ranger of what you are up to. They will share the best bear spotting options AND take care of your safety.

Baby grizzlies.

Whatever your plans are, my best suggestion is always to talk to the locals. They usually are happy to meet some ‘foreign’ people and will give you the best tips.

Just like that we had the chance to meet some bear cubs a few years ago. We were staying in a totally remote village (there wasn’t even a dust road to get there). While talking to a ranger, we told him we were trying to spot wild bears.
Immediately he explained us how a co-worker kept two cubs at his farm. They found the cubs hungry with their death mother in a nest 4 months earlier and saved them. They immediately started searching for a sanctuary but there just weren’t enough free spaces in the area.

Making a wild cage (fence round a big piece of mountainous land) costed too much money for this small community.

Though they were incredibly cute and sweet, they also could not be released into the wild anymore; they were used to people.

Lucky for us we were just in time to meet them before they were deported to a sanctuary in Scandinavia.

Amazing, cruelty free animal interaction can happen and the best way to get there is talk to locals and rangers.

Theth-Albania