Ukraine’s Bear Sanctuary Domazhyr is no run-of-the-mill animal shelter. Its inhabitants are 28 brown bears rescued from human-inflicted aggression, courtesy of FOUR PAWS—an Austrian welfare organisation that founded the establishment in 2016. Today, the 20-hectare reserve—ensconced in the village of Zhornyska, near the city of Lviv—acts as a rehabilitation centre for the bears, while doubling as an eco-educational arena for visitors.
“In January 2017, a memorandum for bear protection was signed between the Ministry of Ecology and Natural Resources of Ukraine, the State Environmental Inspectorate, and FOUR PAWS,” informs Olya Fedoriv, manager of Bear Sanctuary Domazhyr. The impact was felt in December 2020, when permissions to establish regional centres for rescue and rehabilitation of wild animals were sanctioned. Furthermore, the non-profit and the sanctuary have been purveyors of drafting and supporting bills that criminalise the exploitation of wild animals in circuses. In addition, a ban on holding bears captive in catering establishments, hotels, and recreational centres has been imposed nationwide.
At the sanctuary, each bear is closely monitored during the adaptation period, during which they undergo a thorough medical check-up and are nursed to full health once they are brought in. Artur Abramiv, a Ukraine-based photographer, visited the bear hub and documented the caretaking procedure.
A local guide helms an educational tour for school children, where they are acquainted with the bears’ habitat and eating patterns, without coming in direct contact with the mammals.
Manya, age 19, arrived at the reserve in October 2017. She was only three when she was bought by her previous owners, who locked her up in a cage at a restaurant next to a shopping centre in Lviv, for tourists’ amusement. Despite the trauma, Manya is described as calm and observant.
Frankie and Anya play in an adaptive enclosure despite the downpour. Born in Cherkasy Zoo in 2014, Frankie is believed to have been later used in circus performances. He was then moved to Pokrovsk Zoo, where the living conditions were so grim that he, along with Anya, was soon rescued by the sanctuary authorities.
Roman Kostiv, a veterinarian at the sanctuary, tosses apples at 11-year-old Kvitka. She was formerly used as bait for hunting dogs, and was confined in a 45-square-foot cage, only to be let out for fights. More often than not, bears develop psychological and physiological conditions due to unbalanced diet and poor housing conditions.
Due to small cages and restrictions on movement, musculoskeletal problems, decayed teeth and visual impairments are notably common. A seasonal diet usually comprising tomatoes, salmon fillets, carrots and apples coupled with professional care, helps the bears gradually regain their instincts.
Visitors can access the sanctuary from its central entrance.
Onlookers can read biographies of the bears engraved on plates and oversee the four adaptive enclosures, each one hectare in size, from the vantage point of a fenced balcony. Masha emerges from a bear box, where she has been residing for a year. The 13-year-old was used as bait to train hunting dogs before she was transferred in 2018. The scar on her nose and an amputated tail are resultant of dog bites and serve as a painful reminder of her traumatic past at the hunting station.
This feature appeared in the print edition of National Geographic Traveller India September-October 2021.