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Old age overtakes an ages old tradition

Pedro had been suffering from an incurable illness Keystone

It's a sad time for Bern: Pedro is dead. And with him has gone a slice of Bern's history.

This content was published on April 30, 2009 - 18:51

Pedro was the last bear in the capital's famous bear pit. At the grand old age of 28 he had to be put down on Thursday.

He had been alone since his sister, Tana, was put to sleep in June 2008, suffering from incurable arthritis.

"I feel sorry for the bear," said Bern resident Inga Eberhart, as she looked into an empty enclosure on Thursday with her grandson where the bears once were. "We knew about it because he was old and had rheumatism. With the concrete it's not so good for them."

It was reported in November that Pedro himself not only had massive arthritis, but also a tumour. Towards the end of his life he was under constant veterinary supervision and being given painkillers.

He will not be replaced in the pit: his successors, currently living in Bern's zoo, will stay where they are until the new bear park - much bigger and bear-friendlier than the pit - opens later this year.

Although the pit has sometimes been empty before for renovation, the bears are so bound up with Bern's identity that a deserted pit has painful historical memories. The most notorious occasion was in 1798 when the French, having occupied the city, increased Bern's humiliation by ceremoniously removing the animals and taking them to Paris.

In the mid 19th century, the then bear pit (located where the railway station now stands) was so unhealthy that the bears all died – and the authorities briefly tried replacing them with badgers – "Dachs" in German. Satirists promptly renamed the town Dachsopolis.

All this symbolism means that any decision about Pedro's fate was bound to be difficult.

Treating elderly animals

Jérôme Föllmi is a vet who has made a study of the health problems of old zoo animals.

"In the past 30 years the age of animals has increased considerably thanks to improvements in way they are kept, their nutrition and our knowledge about them," he told swissinfo.

"The problem is that as quality of care improves, animals live longer so pathologies develop and it isn't always easy to discover what they are."

Animals try to hide their problems for as long as possible. It's only when they start limping that it becomes clear they are in pain. By that time the disease may be well advanced.

Old zoo bears typically have problems with their joints; in their natural habitat bears hibernate, they don't use their joints for a few months and by the end of the winter they have lost a lot of weight. In a country like Switzerland their behaviour is different; they don't get the same rest and in addition are likely to have extra kilos to carry around.

Bears are also subject to liver tumours, although it isn't known why. It is very difficult to do anything about them. They are hard to detect, and once found, anaesthetising a bear is a controversial procedure. But that's not all.

"The actual surgery is no more difficult than on a large dog, but it's the aftercare," Föllmi explained. "You have to sew him up, and then you have a problem. It's hard to get a bear to realise he mustn't touch the scar, or lick it. In fact, it's impossible."

Making a decision

In taking a decision about the fate of an old zoo animal, it is not only the medical aspect which must be taken into account.

"There's the emotional factor, which can't be ignored," Föllmi admitted. "Not so much for the vet, but for the public. You need good communication. People get very attached to animals."

"I'm so shocked," said Xing Wai Yong, a tourist from China who has been to Bern twice to see the bears. "I think I am so unlucky."

But beyond the emotional, Föllmi says there is also a political factor.

"Sometimes things like: 'It's the last bear, should we wait until we have another? Can we leave the enclosure empty?' That can be important in some zoos," he said.

Pedro reached a fairly average age for a zoo bear nowadays. They used to be allowed to live for longer, Föllmi says, but now vets are quicker to decide to put an animal out of its misery.

Times change

Paradoxically, although the bears have always been close to the hearts of the Bernese, for centuries the problem of elderly bears and surplus bears was solved with no heart-searching at all.

They were summarily dispatched, their flesh going to restaurants, their furs eagerly bought. They were normally killed in winter, when their coats were at their thickest. The bear keeper got the fat, which he could sell to apothecaries for its alleged medicinal qualities.

In 1891 the pit kindly provided a bear for the city fathers' feast marking the 600th anniversary of the foundation of Switzerland.

In 1913 the number of bears reached a record 24. No fewer than eight of them were killed and stuffed and arranged like the carousel of bears on Bern's Zytglogge clock for display at the national exhibition in 1914.

Bears have been kept in Bern for at least 500 years, but the tradition has changed out of all recognition. What was once acceptable is now abhorrent.

With Pedro another chapter comes to an end, as the pit goes out of use forever and the next bears get the chance to frolic in the river and climb real trees.

swissinfo, Julia Slater

Bears in Switzerland

Bears used to be found in many parts of Switzerland, but they were hunted to extinction.

The last was killed in the southeastern canton of Graubünden in 1904.

However, in 2005 a single bear crossed the border from Italy and spent several weeks in Switzerland before disappearing.

That bear's brother, known as JJ3, was eventually shot in 2008 after it proved impossible to keep him away from human habitation.

The decision to kill him aroused huge indignation among some members of the public at home and abroad.

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Bears in Bern

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 about 500 years. The current bear pit is the fourth.

The bears are the responsibility of Bern's Dählhölzli zoo.

Pedro's successors, Finn and Björk, are already getting to know each other in Dählhölzli.

They will be transferred to the bear park when it is completed in the autumn of 2009.

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