A heart-breaking trip with Asher Keddie to save a bear in Romania. Must-read.

Actress Asher Keddie and Lucy in Romania.





It’s the howling that I hear first, as we trudge across the parkland to Ornesti Zoo in Brasov, Romania. We’re here in the cold mountains, on the third day of our trip, led by the World Society for the Protection of Animals across the grass: a group that includes myself and actress Asher Keddie, here to free animals from the zoo where they’re held.

It’s a horribly human howling we hear, followed by a sort of muffled roaring that I don’t yet know is coming from a trio of bears, trapped in cramped cells, a caged wolf, and a pitiful lion pair whose pacing the same path over the eight years of their imprisonment hasn’t even marked the unforgiving concrete floors of their cages here.

“WSPA approached me, when they heard I was big on animal welfare and wanting to make change,” Asher says about her journey to this remote field. “I let them know I wasn’t interested in donning a T-shirt and doing a TV ad. If I was going to commit and join forces, I wanted to get into the field, get my hands dirty and experience first-hand, projects like this.”


It doesn’t get much more first-hand than this. The next thing we notice is the stench, a crawling reek that works its way inside your clothes and sits against your skin. The specific smell of something circling and circling inside its cage, giving off a fetid sweat of panic that dries, then is given off again and dries again, for years and years, layer upon layer upon layer. It’s so strong that when we arrive back at the hotel hours later, I’ll strip off and plunge my clothes into the basin I’ve flooded with hand soap, and in desperation, bottles of shampoo and then conditioner too. It doesn’t help; eventually I ball up the socks and t-shirt and bin them.

Lions are kept in tiny, concrete cages.

“It’s so easy to read articles about animal welfare and look at pictures and get all hot in the head and pay lip service to it,” Asher says. “And I was getting quite frustrated with myself because I was turning into one of those people.”

Well now it’s happening, and the smell is just one more thing I didn’t know to expect, coming here. I’m not prepared for the 3D experience of smelling that combination of fear and wet fur, of hearing the gargling sound of a lion that can’t roar, whose great throat is choked over from its years chewing on the same bars, the rusting metal flecked and dented with tooth marks like a stick of candy chewed by a child.

Because yes, there are lions here, deer, tethered donkeys, an Australian emu kept in a room (not even a cage) while we visit. A bloated boar that’s housed next to a wolf, the thinnest of wire dividing predator from prey.

But it’s the bears we’re here for, and one bear in particular.

He has no name, because that’s the way things are here; animals are money spinners, nothing more, and have no rights of their own. Born in a cage, raised in a cage, we are the first people in this bear’s eight-year existence that have needed to call him something at all, and so, just for now, in my mind, I name him Andy.

There’s a convoy here at Andy’s rescue. Photographers document Andy’s constant circling inside his chamber.  The blind snouts of video cameras take in the grey grass. Romanian kids scramble up the grassy cliffs outside the fences for a closer look at the operation. Asher herself is struggling to be courteous to the men who have kept this creature captive and are now puffed up proudly at what they perceive to be his magnanimous release.

“I had walked into that zoo as openly as I possibly could but found very quickly that I needed to self-protect a little bit so we could do what we needed to do- like everybody it affected me deeply, how impossible it was to grasp the situation that we walked into. It was far beyond, far worse than I could have imagined,” she remembers later.

“I knew I had to be diplomatic; I knew I had to be encouraging. And it’s difficult to encourage people when you so vehemently disagree with them. But I knew I had to be.”

They will improve they zoo, the owners promise, and invite us back to see it when it’s complete, with large enclosures and trees all around. But I feel a creeping doubt as I look at the animals before us, who clearly need understanding now. Not in a year, or two.

Lucy with one of the bears.

“When I first saw our rescue bear, I wasn’t able to connect with him or even look into his face too much because he was so distressed, tossing his head out of frustration, trying to find some comfort in that routine of pacing,” Asher says. “There wasn’t a connection or an understanding. It was extreme pain. Extreme physical, emotional and psychological pain.”

Andy, whose paws have never touched a surface besides the cold concrete of his cell, won’t get in the green cage at the back of the transport truck we’ve brought to rescue him, despite the rich honey lure that’s at the far end. His front legs slip and scramble on the unfamiliar surface. He lunges forward, then rears back, lunges forward again, backing and forthing as he grapples with this enormous invasion into his 2 metre world. The crowd jeers; the skin on my face feels tight. I am desperately afraid I am about to cry and my tears will ruin this precariously staged liberation, when the zoo owners realise just how ghastly I find their hideous row of uniform cages. But the laughter; they’re laughing at this bear, this desperately frightened creature who can’t even save himself, who can’t even escape his imprisonment because he doesn’t know that he’s in prison at all.

“I’ve seen it first hand, the pain,” Asher remembers. “I want people to know that. That we were here. We were here. The reason change is being made by WSPA because they’re here. They facilitate an open conversation with government and communities all over the world. They do the hard work to facilitate that bigger conversation, and make real change.”

It’s a long way back that day. The whole way there, that long journey, I lean my head against the dark trembling window of whatever vehicle is bearing me onward. I think about Andy. About how you think freedom is easy. About how you think you can just go around giving it to something, to someone. How hard it is though, to be free. How brave you must be, to be free. And I realise, finally, so finally, that freedom can’t just be given. It has to be taken, too.

We take Andy to Zarnesti Sanctuary, where Victor Watkins and Cristina Lapis from WSPA’s local partner organisation AMP: Asociatia Milioane de Prieteni (‘A Million Friends Association’) and other staff oversee 59 bears living on 28 hectares of land. But his imprisonment goes on, as it does for all the bears.  Patches of their skin are bald where they’ve rubbed themselves raw; the fur, torn back too many times, will never grow back. They recover, of course, and many go on to healthy, happy and very long lives; but some carry still the scars of their incarceration.

One bear, Betsy, rescued from a zoo in Texas, endlessly walks the same oval around her bathing pool despite the expanses of grass surrounding her. Another, Sam, chews his paw disturbingly, like a teenager still sucking his thumb.  All of them show still these telling signs that they have not escaped their cages. From time to time all stop, throw their heads back and roll their necks around in tight circles, over and over, as though they’ve come up against a wall and are looking up and around it. An invisible wall, or rather a remembered wall they still somehow see.

“These are wild animals. We don’t know how much they have suffered before this day, or what they have in their minds. This is the sad part of my work,” Cristina says.

The day after we rescue Andy from the zoo, we head back to the sanctuary to see him.

It’s cold in Romania. Note the snow!

“The first moment that I really felt I understood his journey was when we went to visit him that next day and he was in his den,” Asher says. “As I walked toward him I peeked around and looked through the bars and I saw where he’d made a bed for himself in the straw, where he’d pushed it to one corner – he’d never had a bed before clearly- he was lying there and he opened his eyes, and it was a moment for sure, the first moment I understood his journey, the relief, and the comfort he was feeling for the first time in his life.”

Andy has been checked by vets and castrated, so he will not breed any bears doomed to a life in captivity. Although the sanctuary is large, it is not without boundaries.

“This place is five-star, yes,” Cristina says. “But it is not liberty.”

We huddle in the spare wooden house built above the basement cages that hold the rescued bears briefly, with trapdoors that open into the sunlit sanctuary. The wait to see Andy freed is not glamorous, or certain. Everyone is filthy. We eat when we can, guzzling bottled water to keep us going between gas station sandwiches and supermarket tubes of Pringles. We grizzle, frustrated, wanting Andy to know freedom, understanding he needs to be ready for his release. But then, just as tension is mounting, word comes through. The door will be lifted today. He is ready; our bear will be freed.

“I will play Russian roulette, as long as I can be near the bear,” I hear Asher say. Her face is set. She means, she wants to be close to our bear as he finds freedom, if she can. Her words from a few days ago come back to me. “How can we get it across that this isn’t just a sob story, that we’re here, that we’re physically doing this, every day we’re here? That we’re going to the sanctuary, that we’re saving these bears?” This is how, I think to myself today. By staying here, by standing close, as our bear makes his first bid for freedom. By telling the story of when his paw touches earth for the very first time in his whole eight years of life.

Andy emerges outside.

“For once in my life, and this is so out of character for me, but I do not give a fuck about filming,” Asher is saying. They’re working out how we can best see Andy make his way into the sanctuary, if indeed he does. Dogs bark into the silence. The cold is still; snow is coming.

We take our positions. Scattered around the house and pressing our faces to windows, crowding on to balconies, lurking near open doors, anywhere where we can see. It’s freezing.

I’m downstairs, in the deep basement of the house, watching the gate opening. Slowly, slowly. Andy doesn’t know what an open door even means. The breeze blowing through, to him, is only a new terror. He circles. He comes past where I am sitting at the bars in my dirty jeans, then drinks, rolls his neck. Comes past, drinks, rolls his neck. Comes past, drinks. Rolls his neck. Again. Twenty times. Thirty times. His quivering nose is the size of my palm.

It takes time. It takes so, so much time. And I’m not ready for it to be so painful, the way I can’t show Andy how to walk outside. The way I can’t tell him what wonders are out there.  How many times he moves his face into the dreaded space, then backs away, moves forward again, shuffles, then snorts, confused. Stops. Circles. Drinks.

Outside, men in neon vests throw apple after apple over the high fence and on to the scabby grass. They fall with the kind of thuds that make you think words like bruise, like damaged. But they’re enough. The apples, whole or harmed, are enough. They lie temptingly only a few centimetres from Andy’s tiny den. And in the end, the way it is with all of us, it’s the temptation that gets him. Apples. A roll of ham that lies that little bit too far for him to stretch. One tentative step. Another step. His back legs still within his den, his snout stretching forward, searching, shaking. Then the tiniest of jerks, uncontrollable. His back legs lift at last, away from the last concrete he will ever have to feel beneath him, and how our breath rises with his hindquarters until we all, bear and men, stand shaking on the edge of something completely new and beautiful. He’s doing it. He’s doing it. And god, how it’s hurting him, the fear, the space, but now I’m seeing something else. That his hulking form has a sudden grace. He’s filling up, filling up with something, becoming less slavish as he stretches, filling up again up with an animal instinct long ago thought lost. And I’m crying, we’re all crying, no, we’re weeping, because we see that he knows what to do. And we realise our ignorance, our cruelty, in keeping such creatures in cages. He has become a bear again.

Andy’s paws touch dirt for the first time.

For the first time Andy stands in full sun, with no bars casting any black shadows across his back. And for the first time, Andy is not alone. From right across the sprawling sanctuary, the other bears have come. Dark shapes lumber close to where Andy’s clawed toenails, overgrown and twisted, touch the first softness he has known. They are far from human, as alien as any animal can be. They know things we do not. They clamber across rocks and shallow ponds, these things Andy has still to discover, and watch over him.  This new bear, this new brother, this animal come home at last.

The thing is, Andy is just one of the bears that needed saving that day. That awful day at that awful zoo, we left behind two older bears, clawing at their cages and rolling their necks across walls that really were there, that really were penning them in.

“Their utter desperation is extremely difficult to walk away from. But all we can do is formulate a plan. And now we’ve been to the zoo and met the people who run it. They’re not going to get the funding they want rebuild that zoo. We know that. It’s not going to happen.  The only thing we can do is to convince them to give up those two older bears.”

I’ve been there. I’ve seen them. I have touched their trembling limbs. And when I left, they stayed there. They kept up their endless circling, the circling that didn’t even mark that freezing concrete. Winter is coming in Romania and these bears don’t know how to hibernate. They’ll stay in those cages though the snow. They’ll still be there when summer comes, the same square metre that makes up their whole life. They’ll be there. They’re there now, while you’re reading this. And only you can help WSPA get them out.

That’s why we need WSPA to help these bears – please donate at bricksforbears.org.au or call them on 1300 13 9772.

 Lucy Chesterton is the entertainment reporter for Mornings on the Nine Network and starts work at a ridiculously early hour. You can find her on Twitter here.

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