It was our first time in Bern and we didn’t know what to expect and what there was to do and see there – you must know by now that we aren’t big planners at all, that we mainly go with the flow. We were simply crossing Switzerland and decided to stop by the Swiss capital without really caring too much about doing any research about the city like travellers usually do.

Bern, the Swiss capital - Bern's Bears and Their Unlucky Fate

We like to hear the locals’ recommendations and so we did for Bern too, in fact the first night in the city we spent it sharing a nice meal with our awesome Couchsurfing host Eve and hearing all about her, Bern, and which places and activities she suggested we shouldn’t miss whilst in town.

I’m not sure how, but at some point of the conversation it came upon the subject how much we both love animals, it was then that Eve said we could have the chance to see real and alive bears in Bern. Really? In the city? How was that possible? The conversation died there without having the time to deepen and find out more about those bears, so I went to bed with only one thought in my mind, to try to see and understand more about them in the morning.

A Terrific View

The day after we went to see what is one of the most well-known (though not to us) tourist “attraction” in Bern, the famous BärenPark aka Bear Park.

I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw that horror!

The first sight was a bear sleeping, nothing horrible in that (in fact he was incredibly cute) apart from the fact that he was in the middle of the city restricted to a very small and enclosed area considering he should have been in the wild instead where wild animals – such as bears – belong. Soon we noticed that there was another bear that was roaming around eating some grass here and there. Soon the sleepy bear woke up and joined his furry friend and they started chasing each other in a playful way.

One of Bern’s bears - Bern's Bears and Their Unlucky Fate
Sleepy bear at the Bern Park - Bern's Bears and Their Unlucky Fate

I followed every step and movement the two bears did, I was so focused on watching them and trying to understand the reason why they were there, that I didn’t realize that Dale and I weren’t alone in enjoying the “show”. More people were gathered along the wall and were entertained by the two lovely creatures, there were grownups and kids too and they all had a big smile on their faces – not like us that looked unhappy, sad and very pensive. At some point a kid even tried to throw a piece of icy snow at one of the bears while his mother was watching in silence and I needed to tell him off instead, hoping he would understand me and the stupidity of his gesture.

Another bear of the Bern’s Bear Park - Bern's Bears and Their Unlucky Fate
Bern’s Bears at the Bears Park - Bern's Bears and Their Unlucky Fate
Franca watching the bears at the Bern’s Bear Park - Bern's Bears and Their Unlucky Fate

At that point I had seen enough, I felt incredibly useless towards these two bears’ situation and I just wanted to leave and not witness that squalid “display” anymore, because this is what those two poor animals are there for, to be displayed to people and in a way to entertain them. Sadness got me and didn’t leave me for the rest of the day, I wanted to know more about that dreadful place. In the evening Eve explained us a bit about the unfortunate destiny of Bern’s bears which made me even more sad and the anger was steaming from my ears.

Old Tradition Combined With Tourism

Apparently Bern is strongly linked with bears and it has been for many years since his founder, while hunting, caught a bear as the first prey. To reinforce this legend, in the 1513 the Bernese, after winning a battle, took back to the city a living bear as reward of war which, from that moment on, was kept in the city. In 1857 the bears were moved to the 3.5 meters deep Bärengraben or bear pit, where they stayed until 2009. In fact complaints regarding the living conditions of Bern’s bears started to be raised from some visitors from Switzerland and from abroad too, from animal activists and members of the RSPCA, and together with some new legal requirements pushed the local administration to think of a better living solution for the bears, which turned into the current bear park we saw that day. The old bear pit still exists, is linked with the present park and has been listed as one of the federal cultural objects of national significance, and has also been included in the highest cantonal preservation category. Shocking!

I like traditions, I enjoy keeping them alive to not lose the links with the past, but this is simply ridiculous, disgusting and completely unnecessary in my opinion. I don’t mean to offend anyone and I understand that keeping bears in Bern is an old custom and that Bernese are very fond of “their” bears for what they represent, but we aren’t in the 16th century anymore. There is no need to deprive these creatures from their freedom only to keep them as a symbol of the city and also as a tourist magnet. I read some articles about this 500 years old tradition and some of the statements made me want to smash my laptop screen. When the bear park was open, some people said that a new life was being given to the bears, they have more space and the chance to go for a swim too, like if it was a kind gift for them and not as it should already be in the first place. It’s true that the bears’ living conditions have improved since they moved from the horrendous pit and I’m glad for that, but still, it’s not like being FREE in the wild, is that so difficult for people to understand?

Bear at the Bern’s Bear Park - Bern's Bears and Their Unlucky Fate

As you can tell I left Bern with a bitter taste in my mouth, with a sorrow heart and with an anger that is still very alive in me just as it was the day I saw those majestic animals confined in such a small area compared to being in the wild. This is just another example of animals’ abuse by human beings for the sake of entertainment and we as travellers should be aiming to travel more responsibly not only for other cultures, but for every animal that is paraded in one showcase or another. If the people of Bern really love the bears then they should let them live free or put them in a wildlife sanctuary or something similar and not keep them as a showcase.

How do you feel about animals kept in captivity?