THIS is the heartwarming moment Albania’s last “restaurant bear” got his first true taste of freedom after spending 20 years locked up in a tiny cage.
The adorable brown bear, named Mark, finally found the courage to take a bath in the pond at the animal sanctuary he now calls home.
Rescuers said he had been reluctant to leave his den at the Bear Sanctuary Arbesbach in Lower Austria, after being “traumatised” by his hellish two decades in captivity.
He was finally rescued by animal welfare group Four Paws in December last year, and is now making up for years of lost time.
Incredible footage captured the moment Mark lept into the water for the first time, splashing around as he soaked up the sunshine.
It came much to the delight of his caretakers, who were worried that the bear had become a recluse after his confinement.
Mark was one of the unfortunate animals forced to spend the majority of his life cruelly cooped up inside a cage for the amusement of diners at an Albanian restaurant.
The 24-year-old bear has horrifically been forced to perform for punters in the capital city of Tirana since he was a young cub.
Mark was doomed to pacing along debris-ridden concrete and sticking his nose through the metal bars for a tiny taste of freedom.
He had even cracked his teeth from gnawing at the cage in a desperate bid to escape.
His owners at the Bear’s Table restaurant, which changed hands in 2021, estimated he may have been born in 1998.
According to Four Paws, animals like Mark were doomed to a “miserable existence” as a roadside attraction.
The organisation launched a mission to stamp out the cruel custom of restaurant bears in 2016, freeing more than 30 caged creatures.
Mark was the only one left to be rescued – and his owners finally agreed after mounting pressure from Four Paws in December 2022.
The brown bear’s former handler, Misir Maxhuku, said he would miss the animal after caring for him for four years.
He said: “Today I am not feeling good because they are taking the bear away. We have been used to living with (him).”
Four Paws rescue team then helped transport Mark to his new species-appropriate home in Austria.
He traveled through North Macedonia, Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, and Hungary before finally arriving.
But staff at the Bear Sanctuary Arbesbach were left concerned by the animal’s timid behaviour, as he rarely ventured out of his den.
They said Mark was “withdrawing more and more” and seemed “distraught”, suggesting his mental scars of captivity remained.
But incredibly, the bear has now plucked up the courage to explore his enclosure – and has even enjoyed his first pamper session.
FourPaws said by giving him space, time, a healthy diet, and medication, Mark has now found a new lease of life.
He awoke from a few weeks of rest in a semi-hibernation state with a fresh outlook, daring to walk around his enclosure for the first time just a few weeks ago.
Mark savoured every breath of fresh air as he strolled around the meadow and the forest, just in time for the arrival of Spring.
We’re so happy that he’s moving on from his horrific past, his long, arduous journey and all the changes that must have been scary for him too.
The black bear then decided he was finally ready to take the plunge and enjoyed his first-ever bath in the sunshine in his pond.
The incredible moment was captured on camera, showing him looking visibly delighted as he splashed around in the water.
He let out some excited huffs while exploring his new sunken sanctuary – before lolling in the shallow area as he soaked up some rays.
Sigrid Zederbauer, manager of Bear Sanctuary Arbesbach, said: “It’s so nice to see that Mark is now showing exuberance typical for bears in the water, splashing his paws and in high spirits.
“We’re so happy that he’s moving on from his horrific past, his long, arduous journey and all the changes that must have been scary for him too.
“He is well on his way to enjoying his new life.
“He is a very calm and careful bear, but also curious about his surroundings and happiest when he can munch on some straw and let the sun shine on his face.
ANIMAL WELFARE WIN
“We are proud of the progress he makes every day.”
Brown bears usually live into their late twenties in the wild, but can often die younger while in captivity.
Mark, the first new arrival at the bear sanctuary since 2016, is now set to live out his days enjoying the Austrian wilderness.
He will be kept company by three other bears, who can bathe, dig, roam and climb to their heart’s content.
We previously told how the “world’s saddest bear” was kept locked up in a tiny cage and used for bile bear farming.
Four Paws incredibly orchestrated the rescue of the stunning Asiatic black bear, named Soi, who spent his life cooped up in a makeshift pen that was smaller than a car.
Bile from various species of bears, including Asiatic black bears and brown bears like, has been used in traditional Chinese medicine since at least the eighth century.
It contains high levels of ursodeoxycholic acid which is used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat liver disease and help dissolve gallstones.
Campaigners continue to call for the total abolition of the sick procedure – with an estimated 10,000 of the animals, mainly sun and brown bears still held in captivity, according to Animals Asia.