The “vodka bears” of Ukraine are being given a chance to dry out.
A plan to save the captive animals – who are fed cheap hooch and stagger around for the amusement of spectators – emerged as the co-host of the Euro 2012 football tournament sought to avoid a public relations disaster.
The ancient practice of keeping performing bears has survived in some eastern European countries. Although feeding them alcohol is outlawed in Ukraine, crackdowns were sufficiently rare that as recently as last year, up to 100 of the so-called “vodka bears” were estimated still to be in captivity.
"On television, they keep showing bears suffering in restaurants and roadside hotels," Ukraine’s environment minister Mykola Zlochevsky told Interfax news agency in August. "How long can we tolerate animal torture in restaurants where drunken guests make bears drink vodka for laughs?"
Knowing that hordes of foreign journalists would descend on the host nations, the authorities in Kiev realized they needed to clean up their country’s act or face the possibility of an international black eye. The first four rescued bears have been moved to Synevir national nature park, in the country’s Carpathian mountains, where they are being prepared for release to the wild.
“If a foreigner comes here and sees a bear in a bar being treated terribly, it’s very bad for the country’s image,” Yuri Tyukh, vice-director at Synevir, told Bloomberg Businessweek recently. “Then, before long, we’ll have to worry about Greenpeace, the WWF—all these people and what they will say about us.”
In several ways the tournament hasn’t been quite the coming-out party some in Ukraine would have liked.
Instead of a polished spectacle showcasing the nation’s place in Europe, the tournament co-hosted by Poland has been dogged by controversy. A jailed former Ukrainian politician has become a cause célèbre among some foreign leaders and accusations of racism have left a stain on the sport and hosts.
Even the good news story about the bear rescue operation, spearheaded by the international animal rights group Four Paws, is providing uncomfortable details about how recently ursine abuse was accepted as entertainment in Ukraine.
The group has voiced cautious optimism about their progress in the country.
“We will move heaven and earth,” says Amir Khalil, the director of development with Four Paws. “The Ukraine has taken positive steps, but the road ahead is still very long.
The bears’ treatment begins with being weaned off alcohol, and eventually they will be released to the wild. First to be rescued were Rosa, followed by Potap, Mashenka and Yura. They are progressing, though a security guard told Bloomberg that Rosa was “still an alcoholic.”