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Baby bears in Bern are talk of the town

Björk (right) wasn’t simply hibernating this winter. She was also looking after two offspring

Switzerland’s capital, known for centuries for its love of bears, is celebrating the birth of two cubs at the city’s new bear park, which was opened in October.

The births took place in December but the bear park authorities were not aware of what exactly was happening in mother Björk’s den until towards the end of January.

A webcam that films the den offered little help to the bear park authorities.

“The camera was really misted up and we couldn’t see much,” bear keeper Walter Bosshard told swissinfo.ch.

“Every day we had mail and telephone calls saying ‘please go and clean the screen’. We couldn’t bear it anymore and so we switched it off. We didn’t have proper pictures so we had to wait.”

The two cubs already have names, Urs and Berna, although it’s not yet clear if they are male and female. “If we’re lucky, it is a boy and girl, so the names will be correct. If not… we will see.”

While it’s evident where the name Berna comes from, it’s not the case for Urs, despite Ursidae being the family name of bears.

Why Urs?

Urs was chosen because of an agreement between Bern and Solothurn Since 1925 Solothurn has had its own bear in the Bern bear pits in memory of sculptor Urs Eggenschwyler. The artist used to own bears at his private zoo and left one, Urs, to Solothurn in his will which the town authorities sent to Bern.

The two cubs, who will undoubtedly prove a powerful magnet for locals and tourists alike, have not yet emerged from the mother’s den.

“They’re not able yet to walk around so Björk keeps them in her den. They move around but they’re not yet able to climb over the hay and go out.”

When the two will emerge into the open not only depends on the weather but also on how fast the cubs grow. It might be one or two weeks or even longer. As Bosshard pointed out: “Mama Björk will decide.”

Björk is proving a good mother and only leaves the den occasionally for a breath of fresh air.

Looking good

“I think she feels fine. She looks very good. She’s calm and not being disturbed,” Bosshard said.

Peace and quiet is all important because mothers who feel threatened have been known to eat their own cubs.

Urs and Berna, however, look as though they are thriving and should by now be about 30cm in length and weigh about 3.5 kg. “It looks good that they will survive.”

The city’s tourist authorities are also pleased at the births of the bears.

“We knew that Finn [the father] and Björk got on very well together so for us it was a question of time when we would have bear cubs,” Michael Keller, head of the Bern City Tourist Centre, told swissinfo.

“Great opportunity”

“It’s a great opportunity for Bern and Bern Tourism to have young bears in this bear park. Bears are an attraction but young bears are even more of an attraction.”

“On the opening day we already had 40,000 visitors and there are thousands of people especially at the weekend who come to the bear park. Young bears will increase the number of visitors,” Keller said.

Bear keeper Bosshard looks forward to the challenges that lie ahead.

“We no longer have two bears; we have four and every day will be different and that is actually fantastic.”

Although there are smiles all around Bern because of the enlarged family, the hard fact is that in two to three years, the bears will have to be separated. As Bosshard put it, brown bears are “loners” and don’t appreciate company.

For the time being, people are being requested by park authorities to behave appropriately during their visit.

“We would ask them to have a lot of respect for Mama Björk and her cubs, and Finn, of course, as well. We ask that they don’t run around, that they don’t shout, and that they don’t feed the bears.”

Robert Brookes, swissinfo.ch

Bern’s bear park

The total cost of Bern’s bear park, opened in October, 2009, was SFr24.5 million ($22.8 million), far exceeding the original budget of SFr9.7 million.

Geological problems along the bank of the River Aare accounted for some of the additional cost.

A mentally handicapped man climbed over a railing and fell into the park in November and was attacked by Finn, the father of Urs and Berna. Police had to shoot the bear to rescue the man.

The man, 25, suffered non life-threatening injuries after being mauled by Finn, a four-year-old European brown bear. Police shot and seriously wounded the animal as they sought to save the man. However, the bear seems to have fully recovered his ordeal.

The gestation period of a brown bear is usually between 170 and 270 days after mating.

Two other bears, orphans Mischa and Mascha, were officially handed over to the city in September 2009 by Svetlana, wife of Russian President Dimitri Medvedev, who was paying a state visit to Bern.

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The city and its bears

Bears have a long association with Bern. According to legend, the founder of Bern, Berchtold V von Zähringen, named his new city after the first animal he killed in a hunt near the site of the bear pit.

It was a bear – or Bär in German. This is why the city's coat of arms features a bear. Bears have been kept in Bern for around 500 years.

There are a number of bear statues all over the city, including on several of the 16th-century fountains.

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