For more than 30 years WSPA wildlife advisor Victor Watkins has worked hard on behalf of animals all over the world. For nearly 20 of those years he has focused on the plight of the world’s bears. He talks to WSPA News about how your support has helped him make an incredible difference.
Going into a war zone to rescue a bear from sniper fire would not be at the top of everyone’s ‘to do’ list, but when asked to help, WSPA’s Victor Watkins simply had to say ‘yes’.
“When I got a message in 1993 that Colonel Bob Stewart, United Nations Commander in Bosnia, had called me about a bear that needed rescuing I thought it was an office prank call,” explains Victor.
Nonetheless he dialled the number, discovered the Colonel’s call for help was very real and shortly afterwards was on his way in one of the few planes still flying into Vitez, Bosnia. Once there, Victor was taken by British soldiers in their tanks and under sniper and rocket fire to see ‘Mackenzie’, a terrified bear living in a cage near the shell of a bombed out restaurant. They said they had been going there every day to feed and protect him from harm.
War zone action
“I didn’t really think much about it then, but the situation was terrible – while we were with Mackenzie we were being shot at… there were rockets whizzing overhead. I don’t think I’d be so keen to go there now,” says Victor wryly.
He explains that the caring soldiers were part of the UN peacekeeping force, but as peacekeepers they found it difficult to intervene to save human lives.
“They were so frustrated that they couldn’t really do anything to help people. The one thing they felt they could do was feed and protect a suffering bear that had no means of escape, from being shot.”
Within days, Victor and Colonel Stewart had arranged for Mackenzie to be transported via Split to a sanctuary in Holland. Now, aged around 23, he is happy healthy and enjoys life in the company of 10 other bears.
The commitment and generosity of WSPA supporters that made Mackenzie’s rescue possible has been key to alleviating the suffering of the world’s bears for more than 20 years, says Victor.
“When I look back at the way that WSPA supporters have helped bears, it’s been absolutely amazing. I think perhaps their dedication starts from a real connection in our memories with these beautiful animals – perhaps from simple things such as childhood teddy bears, fairy tales and learning about them through wildlife documentaries.”
He believes that WSPA’s Libearty campaign launched in 1992 tapped into this connection and at just the right time.
“We showed that bears were getting a bad deal – that the range of cruelty around the world was exclusive and horrific. Because no one else was helping the world’s bears, we were overwhelmed by offers of help – it was an incredible time. There were sacks of mail from people wanting to help us. We should be forever grateful to our supporters for what they have done for bears and for what they have enabled us to do.”
Over the years, Victor has witnessed many incidences of cruelty to bears but cites bear baiting and bear farming as the most heartrending.
“Although I have never been to a bear baiting event; I have seen bears brought to the WSPA funded sanctuary in Pakistan after they have been set upon by dogs – the injuries to their faces are horrific…”
“Bear farming is also terribly cruel – the bears are driven mad by their caged life and the pain they endure as the bile is extracted. They then often die of infections in the extraction wounds too.”
Victor explains that the funding from WSPA supporters was critical in allowing him to work with the governments of Greece and Turkey to stamp out bear dancing. This funding also enabled WSPA to build sanctuaries for rescued bears in forested enclosures that are now run by local animal welfare organisations.
“We helped dancing and captive bears in India in this way too. And our work and sanctuary in Pakistan is doing the same for baited bears. This government-sanctuary approach was central to our work for many years because we found that a government may want to stop cruel practices but can’t if they don’t have anywhere to put the bears if they are confiscated.”
Victor is now working hard on behalf of WSPA supporters to oversee the completion of a third enclosure – encompassing 80,000 square metres – at the Romanian Bear Sanctuary near Zarnesti in the Carpathian Mountains. The sanctuary, now run by local animal welfare organisation Asociatia Milioane de Prieteni (AMP), was built with your support in 2006 to provide a safe haven for bears that were languishing in cruel captivity in a range of Romanian zoos and roadside attractions.
Thanks to you 60 bears are living in peace and enjoying the sanctuary’s beautiful trees and pools. But there are still around 20 bears that still need to be rescued. The third enclosure, scheduled for completion in July-August will make this possible.
Victor is particularly looking forward to the day that Cristina Lapis, the dedicated President of AMP will be able to rescue two bears that are being kept in a cage behind a factory north of Brasov.
“The factory owner thinks they are his pets and is very aggressive about any attempts to remove them – yet the conditions he is keeping them in are terrible. They have lived over 10 years in a rusted cage the size of a large garage – and I can’t wait to see them enjoying life in the third enclosure,” he says.
Find out more
Victor’s book Bear Sanctuary tells the story of the Romanian bear sanctuary and is full of photos of the rescued bears. Bear Sanctuary is available from www.Amazon.com