Freedom for Mark, Albania's last 'restaurant bear'

Albania's last 'restaurant bear' has arrived in a wildlife sanctuary after spending 20 years in captivity, where he lived on a concrete floor and had cracked teeth from biting the bars.

Mark, a 24-year old brown bear, is the last of the so-called 'restaurant bears', which were historically kept in tiny cages for the amusement of visitors in Tirana.

The old bear had spent most of his life in the dismal cage in the Albanian capital, but on Friday, he was finally released thanks to a campaign from animal welfare group Four Paws. 

Mark travelled through North Macedonia, Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, and Hungary before finally reaching his new home at an Austrian wildlife sanctuary.

In Austria, Mark now has a large natural enclosure, with bushes, trees, the opportunity to hibernate and the appropriate food and medical care. 

The owners willingly gave Mark away after mounting pressure from the campaign group.

'Today I am not feeling good because they are taking the bear away. We have been used to living with (him),' said Misir Maxhuku, whose duties have included caring for Mark for the past four years.

When Mark arrived at the Sofra e Ariut (Bear's Table) restaurant, he was just a cub, said Scherk Trettin, estimating him to have been born in 1998. There is no record of how he was originally captured.

Brown bears usually live into their late twenties in the wild, but can often die younger while in captivity. 

The restaurant changed hands a year ago, and its new owners chose to hand Mark over and plan to dismantle his cage — to the displeasure of at least one of their employees.

Four Paws says inadequate legislation means bears and other wild animals remain at risk of being abused as pets or tourist attractions in Albania, where it has rescued 11 other bears.

It has also saved 16 in neighbouring Kosovo, where it operates a second sanctuary.

Experts say that, across the Western Balkans, numbers of bears in the wild have fallen drastically in the past two decades following the destruction of their habitat and illegal hunting.

Four Paws began the journey with the 24-year-old bear with a large file of documents to get him across the multiple national borders.

Leading veterinarian Julia Bohner sedated Mark before putting him into the van that will take him to the Arbesbach sanctuary, 90 miles west of Vienna.

'The last bear that was kept in such a tiny cage, we will today rescue him,' said Magdalena Scherk-Trettin, Four Paws coordinator.

The rescue organization said the bear was fed inappropriate food, which had made him overweight, and his teeth were damaged.

'We also see that he's not walking properly, not behaving properly,' said Scherk-Trettin, adding, however, that they were so pleased the owners willingly gave Mark to them.

More than captive 30 bears kept next to restaurants and other public places in Albania have been rescued since 2015.

Four Paws rescued 11 of those, while others were sent to sanctuaries or zoos in Belgium, Germany, Italy, Greece and Britain in cooperation with other organizations.

According to Albanian law, seizing wild animals and keeping them is prohibited but if a bear or big cat is born in captivity, it can be kept.