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Bosnian fights to save “bear children”

March 03, 2012

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“They are like my children. If they are taken from me, I will set myself on fire here in front of the house,” said Ljutic who has kept the bears since they were orphaned at the age of two months during Bosnia's 1992-1995 war,“We used to share the bed. I bottle-fed him, gave him baby food, I changed his diapers and now they want to take him away from me.”  — AFP

SARAJEVO: Emin Ljutic is so attached to his twin brown bears he says he’s ready to take his own life rather than see them put to death, as ordered by Bosnian law.

In the hamlet of Bistrica, in central Bosnia, Ljutic has even vacated his house to let his two pets, Laka and Gvido, roam free.

He transformed the house into a makeshift zoo for the two six-year-old bears, surrounded the building with a fence and made openings in some walls to allow the animals to go outside if they want.

The bear’s 61-year-old owner, for his part, has moved into a container in the yard where he has nothing but an old couch, a stove and a dilapidated refrigerator. He shares the yard with some 50 dogs whom he also feeds.

The fate of Laka and Gvido recently alarmed animals protection groups in Bosnia.

Although brown bears are among Europe’s protected species, local law does not allow them to be kept as pets and they must be destroyed if they cannot be returned to the wild, veterinary inspector Nada Mustapic explained.

“The best solution would be to find them a shelter. I contacted Sarajevo zoo, but they said they could not take them,” she said.

“In line with the law, I've issued a decision to euthanise them,” she added.

Several European countries have offered to take in the bears, but there’s nobody in Bosnia’s highly complex post-war institutional system to authorise their export, according to representatives of non-governmental organisations.

“We have been contacted by animal protection organisations in Italy, Austria and the Netherlands who have offered to take in Emin’s bears,” according to Rijad Tikves, of the Ekotim NGO. There are a dozen other bears in Bosnia living in similar conditions that might also be put down, warned Bogdana Mijic, from the NOA animal protection organisation.

“They are like my children. If they are taken from me, I will set myself on fire here in front of the house,” Ljutic told AFP.

Ekotim says a solution would be to transform Ljutic's house into a small private zoo that would meet all legal requirements.

But they would need some 15,000 euros ($20,000), an amount difficult to come by in one of the Europe's poorest countries.

Ljutic has kept Laka since the bear and his brother were orphaned at two months old.

Their mother was killed by a mine left over from Bosnia's 1992-1995 war.

“I bought him from shepherds. I paid 1,000 convertible marks (500 euros, $650),” said Ljutic who left his wife and two sons to look after the animals.

“We used to share the bed. I bottle-fed him, gave him baby food, I changed his diapers and now they want to take him away from me.”

“I will never allow it!”

Laka’s brother Gvido grew up with another villager who released him into the wild two years ago. But the bear immediately returned to the village and Ljutic took him in as well.

“Now the bears are big and potentially dangerous. Before, I used to go to the village with Laka. He came with me in the car and we went for a drink, he loves beer,” Ljutic said.

Keeping his bears and dogs well fed is a big challenge for the unemployed mechanic, who earns a living collecting scrap metal.

The owners of a number of slaughter houses in the neighbourhood bring him leftover meat while villagers sometimes offer a bag of corn, apples or pears.

“I have 50 kilos (110 pounds) of honey for the kids this winter. Honestly, can you find a better home for them” asked Ljutic.