When staff at Yorkshire Wildlife Park heard of four rare Ussuri brown bears kept in cages at a Japanese museum, they began an epic journey to give them a new home
We speak to Yorkshire Wildlife Park about their mission to save four bears from a Japanese Museum and give them a new home over 5,000 miles away in England
A small cage and a concrete floor; this was all that four Ussuri brown bears had known before they were rescued and brought to Yorkshire Wildlife Park (YWP). Kept in an exhibit at a cultural museum on Japan’s northernmost island, the bears had lived in these cramped conditions – measuring just 1.8 by 2.7 metres (5.9 by 8.9 feet) – since they were taken from the wild as cubs. Two of the bears were 17 and the others were 27 – Ussuri brown bears have a lifespan of about 35 years, and the museum lacked the experience and resources to properly care for them.
Alarmed visitors alerted UK charity Wild Welfare to the living conditions of the bears, and the museum announced it wanted the bears to be re-homed. Georgia Groves, Wild Welfare’s project director, explains how their journey to England began.
“The Ainu Museum bears came to our attention a few years ago, and [we worked] closely with Japanese animal welfare NGOs and zoo experts to try to find a more suitable home for them.”
No zoos or sanctuaries in Japan had the space or facilities to re-home the ageing bears, so the search was widened. YWP was chosen as their new home because of its experience in conservation of at-risk species and rehoming animals in need. John Minion, CEO of YWP, explains why they stepped in.
“We are fortunate we have the space, skills and experience to re-home these bears, who will require specialist care, and it is great to welcome them to Yorkshire. We are grateful to the Ainu Museum for releasing the bears to us where we will be able to give them a secure future.”
Transporting four large bears 8,700 kilometres (5,405 miles) from Japan to England was no easy task, so weeks were spent planning the logistics of the journey. The safety of the bears and the people involved was paramount. With a plan mapped out, staff from YWP travelled to Japan and, with help from local experts, loaded the bears into specially constructed crates. Having spent most of their lives in cages, it took seven hours and the temptation of food before all four were ready to leave.
Debbie Porter, YWP animal manager, remembers the emotion of that morning. “The 27-year-old female, Hanako, was very playful when we were loading her – at one
“It was a very emotional day. Everybody was really pleased to take part in something so big”
point she tried to grab a hose pipe; she was very curious about what was going on. She is very sassy and extremely bright.
“Once we had finished [loading] it was unbelievable – I actually took a photo of the empty cages because you think for 27 years they have been in that tiny caging. It was a very emotional day. Everybody was really pleased to take part in something so big. It had a really lovely feel to it.”
Once they’d settled in their crates, the bears were loaded onto a temperaturecontrolled lorry and the group drove to the airport for the longest leg of the journey. To make sure they were safe and well, several vets travelled with them. After becoming some of the most unusual passengers to arrive at London Heathrow, the bears were checked over and prepared for a second road trip. Almost two days after they’d left the confines of their cages, they arrived at their new home on 3 August 2018.
Staff members at the park were waiting to welcome the new residents. The crates were unloaded and set down carefully against the house in the park’s rehabilitation reserve, and staff then waited to see who would emerge first. “One by one the slides were lifted and the bears took their first steps into their new home. Hanako was the first to leave her crate – pawing at the floor as the crate was locked into position, it was almost as if she knew she was home. She was quickly out, dived straight into her food,