“We call all of them Balu for some reason,” tells me Zviadi, a keeper of a park, located right at Tbilisi’s entrance and points at the cage, where a full-grown bear walks back and forth from one wall to another. Besides this Balu, Zviadi looks after several other ones at Tbilisi Zoo. Aside from the name, Balus have some other thing in common: all of them have spent most of their lives in cages.
Bears kept in cages privately is one of Georgia’s environmental problems. I returned to this topic, because today’s World Animal Day. But I don’t want to repeat myself citing much of my stories I’ve done on this (you can watch a multimedia story on the caged bear problem here: http://www.eurasianet.org/node/61394). So just for a note: despite similar problem in other countries of Eurasian continent, in Georgia, in most cases, bear owners don’t put them into cages to make money on them. The reason for that is, amazingly enough, soft-heartedness.
To explain this I’ll put the usual way a bear eventually finds itself in a cage.
- A hunter kills a female bear, finds out that she had a cub and gets fascinated by it. Feeling that he cannot leave a helpless cub all alone in the forest a hunter takes them home.
- Some time after that a friend of a hunter, and the owner of a restaurant sees the cub and gets fascinated by it as well. By that time the cub has already grown a little, and the hunter, and his family, realize that keeping a bear is not an easy thing. So they give it out easily.
- At the restaurant a cub is everybody’s pet. Restaurant’s owner plays with him (especially when drunk, I saw such a scene, it was amazing: nearly crying out of tenderness a drunk guy playing and petting a 1-year-old cub through the bars of a cage), visitors take pictures of their children in front of the cage etc. Very often the owner says that he really loves the cub (again, usually named Balu), and wouldn’t release him/her to the forest, because he will die there soon, which the owner doesn’t want him to. That’s true, a young bear grown close to people don’t get afraid of them and in wilderness he/she will become an easy meat for hunters.
- However, a cub grows up, and the owner gradually realizes that it’s not very much fun to keep a huge animal approaching its puberty age. Plus, even if the owner hoped to get customers attracted by the wild animal, smell and insanitary conditions now start deterring the visitors.
Eventually the owner starts thinking about taking the bear to a zoo. But being full, zoos rarely accept bears. And so far in Georgia there are no bear shelters. Got stuck in such a dead end situations caged bears of Georgia usually have only way out left: as a barbeque for some local event, or be released into the woods and eventually be barbequed by some hunter.
In Georgia the number of caged bears is 25 to 50, varying from report to report. Scientists say the number is enough to start affecting the biodiversity in the region. Building shelters may also help solve the problem, but the final solution isn’t possible without people understanding that wild animals cannot be treated as pets, even if they are ‘so cute.’ The less Balus – the more bears.