Zoo faces cruelty charges over cub deaths

Morven McLean
Morven McLean - [email protected]
Zoo faces cruelty charges over cub deaths
Kurt Nünlist was appalled by the deaths of two cubs at the Bern zoo (photo:zvg)

A Swiss animal lover has filed a legal complaint against Bern zoo, accusing it of cruelty over the deaths of two bear cubs. Dählhölzli zoo could be fined under Switzerland’s tough animal protection laws.


It’s the latest twist in a story that has made the news worldwide, and that began earlier this month when a male brown bear, known as Misha, killed one of its two offspring – “baby bear 3” – after repeatedly tossing it into the air in full view of shocked zoo visitors.

Kurt Nünlist, a train driver from Solothurn, says the Dählhölzli wildlife park behaved recklessly in allowing the 360-kilogram male to share an enclosure with its mate and her two cubs.

After the “predictable” killing of one cub by its father, the zoo authorities took the decision to euthanise the second baby, sparking a public outcry.

Nünlist says Dählhölzli must be held accountable for its actions, which would otherwise be “swept under the carpet”.

“I have laid charges of animal cruelty with the police and these have to be legally investigated,” Nünlist tells The Local. “Whether the zoo authorities acted out of naivety or stupidity, it was animal cruelty and they can’t get away with that.”

Contacted  by The Local, the zoo said that it regretted what had happened but stood by its actions.

Under Swiss law “pain, damage or suffering must not be unjustifiably inflicted on an animal, nor must any animal be subjected to severe anxiety. The neglect, overexertion or mishandling of animals is forbidden,” according to the Swiss Veterinary Office, FSVO.

Carsten Hertwig, bear expert with the Swiss branch of the Four Paws animal rights organisation, is supportive of Nünlist’s action. “From a moral and ethical standpoint we agree with him: it is animal cruelty. But only time will tell what his legal chance of success is,” he tells The Local.

“Four Paws is highly critical of the zoo’s approach as it deliberately took the risk that the cubs could be killed by their father."

Natural environment?

Nünlist, 48, whose hobby is breeding German Shepherd dogs, says he understands that the zoo wanted to keep the bears in as natural an environment as possible and not separate them. But unlike German Shepherds, bears are solitary animals and the male bear’s aggression towards his cubs was a natural reaction.

“The fact he killed the cub was in his genes, he did it because he wanted to mate with the female again,” says Nünlist.

“The female didn’t put up a fight because if she had, the male would have killed her too,” says Nünlist.

Expert Else Poulsen backs up this assertion. Poulsen was called in by Dählhölzli in 2011 to offer advice on how to manage the bear family in Bern’s new riverside bear park. The Canadian told the Berner Zeitung newspaper that failing to separate Misha from the cubs went against all scientific evidence on the behaviour of brown bears.

“Misha and [female bear] Masha were born in the wild and have normal brown bear genes,” she said of the two orphaned Russian bears that were a gift to Bern from then Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. “The fact they were hand raised does not change thousands of years of genetic programming.”

Doomed to fail

According to Poulsen, the experiment to keep the bear family together could only have succeeded if the park was at least 25 hectares in size. The Dählhölzli bear enclosure is just half a hectare in size.

The zoo is reported to have decided to castrate Misha, thereby avoiding any future problems the male bear might have had with further offspring.

Four Paws welcomes this move, but regrets that it came too late for the cubs. Its expert Hertwig accuses the zoo of misusing the baby bears as a “magnet to attract the public”.

“Zoos should only breed animals if they can provide good conditions for keeping the young. Otherwise the males should be castrated,” he says.

For Nünlist, concerns remain over Masha. “I am sure the female bear is not happy. Losing her cubs was the worst thing that could have happened to her,” he tells The Local.

He hopes his legal action will result in a rethink on the way bears are kept.

“I don’t think Bern will stop keeping bears, but I must say, if they have so little idea it might be better if they got rid of them altogether,” he says.


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