We drive down an unsigned, unmarked and often unbarricaded road clinging to the edge of a reservoir. Cows wandering across the potholed tarmac, street dogs aimlessly patrol the footpaths and there’s not a car in sight.
In the UK this road wouldn’t be on a map, but instead we are a few hundred metres from one of the most popular attractions in Kosovo.
Four Paws Bear Sanctuary, just outside the capital, Prishtina, houses over a dozen brown bears which, until 2010, were legally kept in appalling conditions as pets, or as attractions at restaurants and businesses across the Balkan country.
Spokesperson for the sanctuary, Taulant Hoxha, explains: “The sanctuary in Kosovo started because of one bear, Kassandra, who is 16 years old now. She had been living in a cage for 11 years at a restaurant in Duhle.
“In 2012 the restaurant closed, and she was left alone for over a year without any food, water or shelter.
“There was a group of NATO soldiers that used to take care of her and they wanted to find a solution, so they contacted Four Paws International and asked them to help this poor bear who was a very urgent case”.
On our walk through the heavily wooded, and increasingly steep trails, we caught sight of the bears.
It’s clear to see that whilst healthy, thick furred and well fed, there is some lasting damage.
Some pace back and forth, some have visibly crooked noses, once broken, and none are fearful of humans, some even greeting us and enjoying the attention.
Despite Kosovo having an abundance of wild animals, including brown bears, wildcats and wolves, Taulant says how the bears in the sanctuary, “have spent a very long time living in cages, very close with humans and are used to them.
“They do not fear humans and they are used to them taking care of them.
“This means that they wouldn’t readapt to the wild, they would seek out humans, and therefore all the bears that are living at the sanctuary are going to be living here for the rest of their lives.”
You can visit the sanctuary from Prishtina and it’s open to the public for less than €2 per person. To find out more, visit their Facebook page: www.facebook.com/pg/PylliiArinjvePrishtina.
article and photography by Tom McBeth.