The task was undertaken by the team and a media crew who drove a large truck to collect the bears from the Peña Escrita Natural Park at Almuñécar, near Málaga. Driving there from Hungary across Slovenia, Italy, France and Spain this autumn was arduous enough, but even tougher was the continuous hard slog all the way back for 50 hours with the added worry of making sure the bears were comfortable enough to survive the trip.

It was my pleasure to meet one of the leading volunteers, Balázs Pesti, and hear about the high hopes and potential problems involved in this daring and risky 6000-kilometre round-trip from Budapest to the other side of Europe. Time was also a big issue, for the bears were facing an uncertain future in Spain and action needed to be taken quickly. Official paperwork had to be handled before the trip to safety could begin, and possible anxieties along the way had to be thought out beforehand.

Fortunately, it was a happy ending. The bears and the crew made it, to overall relief and joy. Now, in Hungary, the bears have a second chance, receiving professional care in a spacious environment protected by a secure fence. Considering they have spent much of their lives in captivity, they would be unable to fend for themselves in the wild again.

I asked Pesti about the venture.

Balázs, you clearly have an affinity and affection for bears. How did you get involved?

The whole project started almost three years ago when the Spanish independent animal rescue foundation Fundación para el Asesoramiento y Acción en Defensa de los Animales (Foundation for Advice and Action in the Defence of Animals/FAADA) made a point of contacting the Fehérkereszt Állatvédő Liga (White Cross Animal Protection League) as they wanted us to take five of their bears away. Both these organisations had successfully dealt with bears before but not in such a large, elaborate scale or order as this. Communications and organisational work to begin with was slow and ponderous, but the Kamerával az Erdőért Egysület (With Camera for the Forest Association), Hunland Trans Kft transporters and GAMESZ (economic, technical support organisation) from Veresegyház and a few volunteers (including me) all finally stepped in, and brought the whole project to a final, positive perspective. We flew a few times to Spain prior to this to make sure everything was prepared properly in advance to the best of our abilities, before the bears' next journey in life.

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Who were the additional passengers? How many vehicles took part?

The crew was made up of media professionals, hunters, animal rescue activists and volunteers. Half of the crew flew to Málaga, rented a car and then drove to Almuñécar nearby, before the final rescue operation took place. The others had to drive across Europe, which was most demanding. Finally, the "main truck" and "feature" arrived on the scene and drove the bears away.

What about the bears themselves? What kind of bears are they? How big/ heavy were they? How did they react to you all?

They are all brown bears (Ursus arctos). Two were massive! Balu, the biggest, is about 550 kilogrammes and 3.5 metres tall. Another slightly "smaller" one is called Negro and was rescued from a circus a few years ago. He was roughly 400 kilogrammes and 3 metres tall. The other three are considerably smaller but they are still considerably large, adult-sized bears.

Did you bring every bear?

There were six bears initially but we were advised to leave behind the eldest male. The local vet said he probably would not survive the sedative that was essential before taking him away.

How old are they and were they healthy? Were any disturbed about being taken away?

Although they were tagged with chips and had official CITES papers [a multilateral treaty to protect endangered plants and animals], it is hard to say roughly how old they are. I assume they are middle aged. They were in good, sturdy conditions considering they had been fed with a simplistic diet during recent times.

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When you all arrived there and saw the bears for the first time, how did everyone take to the bears and vice versa?

It was an amazing first encounter for all of us. Even so, the bears were curious about us and somehow sensed something was going to happen. The respect, connection and general rapport between us and the bears remained throughout. But we never lost sight they are wild animals, and it was always best to keep some reserve and to be safe rather than sorry.

How did the bears react when the big day came?

The bears never liked the local vet. When they saw this familiar local preparing the injections, they panicked before finally collapsing.

After sedation, how did the bears all fit into the truck?

After falling into a deep sleep, the bears were assembled into cages, made for transport purposes, then lifted by cranes into two smaller local trucks that took them away to the city where the big main truck was waiting. The five cages filled the transportation truck to capacity. A little while later, when on the road, the bears finally slept off the tranquillisers and naturally they woke up!

How did they respond and survive being on the road? Were they hungry, thirsty, impatient? What extra provisions were made?

This was a daunting journey for them. It was essential to give them water every four to five hours. Feeding them while en route was forbidden. For the first few hundred kilometres they were a little excited but later settled down nicely. During the last 200 kilometres they became more and more anxious and restless.

Did anything happen along the way? Were you stopped by police, border guards? Even so you had official papers to get by.

Although this was one of the longest journeys in my life and we were obviously taking turns in driving, nothing in particular happened. I drove 2200 kilometres altogether. All of us needed a break which we reached somewhere half -way. But trying to sleep during the day in a small hotel next to the highway in France with much noise was too ambitious. As a result, we did not get much rest. There were no border guards but at one point a police officer briefly intervened, as he showed some interest towards us and the cargo. We invited him to take a look inside but he declined the offer and was satisfied everything was in sufficient order. Finally, he waved us on.

Did the difference in climate and conditions between Hungary and Spain affect the bears?

For the bears a milder Hungarian climate with more greenery is better and healthier than the sunnier shore climes of southern Spain. They quickly adapted to Veresegyház conditions in a few days, and really enjoy feeling and pressing the soil under their paws.

How did you and the team react on a personal note at the end of it all? It must have been a highly emotionally charged experience, also joyous, scary and uncertain at times?

Although, as the resultant film shows (see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZKdRI3KBfe8), there was a great atmosphere throughout, it was still a huge challenge for us all the way. Not only with the travel but having to deal with Spanish bureaucracy and the slow, tardy communications and occasional language barriers between us. From time to time, the committee had different ideas and proposals in mind on how to accomplish this rescue project. But in the end we all pulled through as if we were one big family, which meant close bonding and success.

The bears have been here in Hungary for a few weeks now. Have they settled in? Do you and your team visit them? What is next for the bears?

They were quarantined for a few weeks before they were allowed in the enclosure with the other bears. When that was over they settled in really well, and yes, we have visited them a few times since they arrived. They seem to be happy in their new home.

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When you are not chasing after bears, what is your main profession?

I'm a chiropractor and a hypnotherapist, and much more. I strongly believe that the holistic approach, dealing with musculoskeletal and mental problems, is a must. "Mens sana in corpore sano," which is Latin and translates as "A healthy mind in a healthy body," says it all.

Will there be any future animal missions?

As of now, there are no future projects on such a grand, elaborate scale as this coming up so soon. There are always smaller ones going on but as soon as something big comes up, I'll let you know.

May I join in next time? How does one apply?

Yes, anyone can apply and be involved in some way. The best way to go about this is to contact the Fehérkereszt Állatvédő Liga or the Veresegyházi Medveotthon (Veresegyházi Bear Home) directly.

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I noticed this highly commendable rescue operation made the local news and papers but the documentary film has had little exposure in the English media.

The Hungarian M5 TV channel was the first to show the documentary a few weeks ago. We had a few other TV appearances, and although this was the biggest bear rescue mission that has ever taken place in the EU, the international media barely covered the story until now.

For information about the Veresegyház bear shelter, see www.budapesttimes.hu/2017/11/21/respect-and-enjoy-...


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