Heart-breaking footage shows the moment the owner of a bear who forced her to perform in a circus for nearly 20 years watched as she is released into a sanctuary.
Trainer Sasha handed over his bear Masha – pronounced Marsha – to animal rescuer Lionel De Lange For Masha, meaning the end of a life being muzzled, led on a rope, and performing tricks like riding a scooter and jumping through hoops for an audience.
The video shows the moment Masha leaves her cage to see that she is now free to roam in a new 350-square-metre purpose-built sanctuary – after previously being kept in the back of a van.
Sasha, who gave the bear to Lionel from the The Lawrence Anthony Earth Organization (LAEO) and the SOS Zoo and Bear Rescue, watched from behind the wire mesh fence to watch her in her new home.
The charities have already helped bears and big cats throughout the eastern Europe adjust after they’ve been freed from captivity.
In the Ukraine, animals such as bears, and even lions and tigers, are still forced to perform in circuses, kept in terrible conditions in private collections, or caged outside commercial premises to attract business.
There is no evidence Sasha mistreated Masha but Lionel said she would raise her paws seemingly to protect her head and body when she saw the bar he used to direct her.
In a statement given to the LAEO, Sasha said: ‘I was sad to give her away because she has been with me all my life and been there every day.
‘But I felt very good because I saw that they cared and they had built her a really good enclosure, I didn’t expect it to be as big as it is and as nice as it is.’
Lionel said that now Sasha might be able to help secure land which could be used to help other circus animals which people now don’t want to keep.
Lionel said: ‘Sasha got Masha as a cub of about three months old. She has lived in the back of a van in a cage.
‘She just had that crate in the back, she didn’t even have the run of the whole of the van.
‘It can be 32C outside and she would be cooking in the back of that van.
‘It’s been his bear for so many years and bizarrely he wanted to come and see that she is going to a good place.
‘The first time he brought her here I told him to take her out of the back of the van. He wanted to show us tricks and things she could do but we weren’t interested in that.
‘When we saw Sasha leave the next morning after Masha was released he was in floods of tears.’
Lionel said for him personally it meant everything not to have to see animals like Masha perform again.
He said: ‘It means so much, to see her not have to perform, to not have to cower to a metal rod.
‘Any abuse of animals, from dogs and cats, to bears and lions and tigers, I don’t like, so it makes me feel good to see them rescued.
‘I feel good for Masha that we were able to do this and that we will hopefully be able to do a lot more soon.’
Lionel said he was not worried the bear would miss her old life as she enters her new sanctuary.
He said: ‘From going from not even a one-and-a-half to two square metre box, to 357 square metres of space with oak trees and fruit trees and ground and a pool, I think she’ll get over any attachment to her old life.
‘It’s not huge the new space she has but we know she’s going to have trouble adapting to such an area anyway. Finances and so on mean this is what we can provide for now, but it’s better than leaving her in a van for the rest of her life.
‘We will also build a night shelter where in the winter she can sleep and it will be enclosed with sides that shut down.
‘We will feed her in there and we can put her in there with the sides down so workers can clean the sanctuary and pool and add enrichment for her.’
Lionel said the hope was to make Masha’s new home a transition area and place of safety for other rescued animals.
He said: ‘All the sanctuaries are full, we’ve got three in Ukraine, one is government, another is full and then there’s a very small one with five bears and they can’t take any either.
‘So, I am the only one that can take new bears and it’s going to cost to feed and keep these bears and for vets’ bills.
‘It will be a place of haven or sanctuary and we hope visitors will be able to come in for a small fee. We can also do an education programme.’
To help with the work Lionel and other volunteers are doing in the Ukraine visit: http://www.laeoukraine.org