Inside the heroic effort to rescue Masha the bear from Ukraine

As the Russian invasion continues, caretakers are scrambling to save animals, too.

photographs by Jasper Doest
Published 28 Mar 2022, 16:43 BST
JasperDoest_Masha_12
Masha arrives at Libearty Bear Sanctuary, in Zarnesti, Romania, after a 30-hour drive from western Ukraine. Masha is one of the thousands of nonhuman animals that also have been displaced by the Russian invasion.

When Masha, a Eurasian brown bear, arrived last week at Halmeu, on the Romanian side of the border with Ukraine, the crossing was crowded with refugees—mothers and children, grandmothers and grandfathers, young women travelling alone.  

Masha was resting in the back of the van her caretaker, Lionel de Lange, had rented to evacuate her from the country. While waiting to cross the border, he opened the back door to let her have some fresh air. It had been a long, 20-hour drive. 

Soon people started to approach, curious about the animal. De Lange was nervous about how they’d react. “When we’ve done animal rescues in the past, people say, Why are you helping animals and not people?” he says. When he saw people walking over, “I really thought [they] were going to give us crap about this.”

Masha peers out of her temporary enclosure at the sanctuary shortly after arrival. At first she refused to eat and paced in circles, a common sign of distress in captive animals.
On her first day in the sanctuary, Masha waits on concrete before walking onto the forested ground of her new habitat. All 117 bears here have spent most of their lives in captivity, unfamiliar with the feeling of soil under their feet. When they arrive, some are afraid to leave the concrete for months, Cristina Lapis, the sanctuary’s founder and director, says.

But no one did. “She brought a smile to some really, really sad faces,” he says. “I think they understood that she was going through the same thing as them—she had nowhere to go and no one to look after her.”

Masha and de Lange’s story puts a spotlight not only on the non-human victims of Russia’s brutal war but also on the caretakers in Ukraine who are risking their lives to save animals. Some, like de Lange, founder and director of Warriors of Wildlife, a Ukraine-based rescue organisation, undertake dangerous journeys to escort animals to safety. Others remain at home, caring for pets or captive wild animals at zoos and sanctuaries amid dwindling food supplies and the strain of constant bombardment. 

Everyone is scared, de Lange says, “because we don’t know what’s coming.” 

On March 21, Masha finally arrived at Libearty Bear Sanctuary, in Zarnesti, Romania, home to 117 brown bears rescued from circuses, monasteries, hotels, and tourist attractions, nearly all in Europe. Masha was one of the first bears evacuated from Ukraine in the wake of Russia’s invasion. She joins lions, tigers, and other captive animals who are finding refuge in Romania, Poland, Germany and other European countries. 

Long journey from circus to sanctuary

De Lange saved Masha in 2018 from a travelling circus. Now 22, she’d spent 18 years performing tricks in shows after being taken from her mother as an infant. When she wasn’t made to walk on tightropes, ride bicycles, or balance balls, he says, she lived in a small cage in the back of a truck. His team established a large enclosure for her on some farmland in Sambir, close to Lviv. But last year, the landowner ended their contract. De Lange would have to find a new home for Masha. 

Masha waits inside a temporary enclosure in her 4,000-square-foot habitat in Sambir, Ukraine, as caretakers prepare to sedate her for transport to Romania. She was rescued four years ago by Warriors of Wildlife from a traveling circus, where she’d spent the first 18 years of her life performing tricks and living in a small cage on the back of a truck.
Photograph by of Lionel de Lange

Libearty Bear Sanctuary, the largest for brown bears in the world, had a spot for Masha. “We agreed we’d move her on February 28,” de Lange says. “On Thursday morning, the 24th, we woke up to shelling and were under attack.”

Two days later, de Lange had to flee his home in Kherson, now under Russian occupation and in humanitarian crisis because of the lack of food and medical supplies. He walked and hitchhiked to Romania, where he started hunting for a vehicle he could take to Ukraine to get Masha. After being turned down by six rental companies, he secured a van and packed it with 1,600 pounds of food, medical, and personal hygiene supplies to bring to people in Ukraine. De Lange says he told the rental agency, “I’m going into Ukraine with aid, but I didn’t tell them I was bringing a bear back!”

Through the fencing at Libearty, Masha spots—for the first time in her life—other brown bears. Taken from her mother as an infant, she had spent her life in isolation. “When she saw the other bears and began to smell them, we were all crying,” Lapis says.

Back in Sambir on March 20, where Masha was being cared for by a Warriors of Wildlife employee, de Lange sedated the bear to get her into her transport cage and began the 20-hour drive back to Romania. By the time they arrived at Libearty, another 10 hours from the Ukraine border, Masha was pacing frantically in circles, refusing to eat or leave her cage. “It brought back memories, I think, of being in the travelling circus again,” de Lange says. 

“In the evening, when she arrived, it was terrible for all of us,” says Cristina Lapis, founder and director of Libearty Bear Sanctuary. “She didn’t want to drink or eat or anything. She refused honey. She just trembled.” 

By the next morning, Masha was doing a bit better. Timidly, she stepped onto the grass. She discovered her swimming pool, looking at her reflection in the water. And through the fence of her enclosure, she saw other bears. “Imagine 22 years never seeing another bear,” Lapis says. “When she saw the other bears and began to smell them, we were all crying.”

Masha enjoys a quiet moment in her temporary enclosure at the sanctuary. She’ll stay here while she’s monitored by a veterinarian but eventually will move to a forested, 29-acre habitat with 40 other brown bears.

As the war continues, Lapis is getting calls about bears around Ukraine. Next week, the sanctuary is set to receive a 15-year-old abandoned brown bear found in a cage outside a bombed restaurant. “The animals who remain there, we cannot leave behind,” she says.

Aiding Ukraine’s animals

More than 3.5 million Ukrainians have fled the country, according to the United Nations. And Masha is just one of many animals who have been evacuated. Seven bears from White Rock Bear Shelter, in Kyiv, were brought to a sanctuary in western Ukraine on March 6. Several lions and tigers from Wild Animal Rescue, also in Kyiv, were transported to a zoo in Poland. Many Ukrainian refugees have brought their cats, dogs, rabbits, hamsters, and other pets with them to countries including Romania, Poland, and Hungary. All three have waived standard vaccine or health check requirements for many pets.

Tens of thousands of animals, however, remain in zoos, farms, sanctuaries, shelters, and on the streets all over Ukraine. Food, especially in places under heavy artillery fire, is scarce, and many areas are inaccessible to outside aid. Zoos and sanctuaries report that their animals are traumatised by bombings—cowering at air raid sirens and blasts, running into fences, even abandoning their babies. Some sanctuaries report that animals have died from shock. At the Kyiv Zoo, a caretaker sleeps with a terrified elephant every night, to soothe him. At Nikolaev Zoo, in the Black Sea port of Mykolaiv, three members of the staff were killed in a bomb strike. 

Lapis taps on the window of an underground cave where she can observe the sanctuary’s brown bears. In 1998, she encountered her first captive brown bear, named Maya, who was kept in a tiny cage outside Bran Castle, commonly known as Dracula’s castle, in Transylvania. Maya had chewed both of her paws off from extreme distress. Lapis visited and fed her for years. “The moment Maya died, I promised her that no other bears would die like this,” she says. In Maya’s honor, Lapis started Libearty Bear Sanctuary.

Valentina and Leonid Stoyanov, veterinarians in Odesa, have rescued dozens of animals, wild and domestic, since the war began. With support from their Instagram and TikTok followers, they’ve been able to buy food for their charges and those at several nearby shelters. 

“Our lives are completely destroyed. We now no longer have a future,” Valentina says. “In spite of this, we get up every day and do not give up. Thousands of abandoned animals need us. They're hungry, scared and not to blame for the fact that war broke out in our country.” (See more of the Stoyanovs' work in this National Geographic TikTok).

This week, de Lange plans to return to Ukraine to evacuate a lion, now being kept as a pet in Sambir. He plans eventually to move the lion to Warriors of Wildlife’s sanctuary, in South Africa’s Eastern Cape. 

Of his trip from Romania to pick up Masha, he says, “Driving into Ukraine, I was happy. I was scared, but happy. It must be done. It’s just something that needs to be done.” 

Bears at Libearty they live in groups of about 40 on the 170-acre property. The bears forage in the forest and even learn to hibernate in winter. “In the beginning, they don’t know what to do with their freedom,” Lapis says. “With time, they begin to live exactly like wild bears.”
How you can help

The following are just some of the groups working to help Ukraine’s animals. Visit their websites to learn more about how to get involved.

- Warriors of Wildlife, the Ukraine-based group that rescued Masha
- Libearty Bear Sanctuary, in Romania, where Masha now lives
- Leonid and Valentina Stoyanov, veterinarians in Odesa, Ukraine, helping abandoned animals
- Red Shed, which lists supplies needed by animal shelters and their addresses
- DIOZ, a Polish charity bringing food and medicine to animals in Kyiv, Mariupol, and elsewhere

Natasha Daly is a staff writer at National Geographic where she covers how animals and culture intersect. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

Jasper Doest is a Dutch photojournalist who explores the human-wildlife relationship. His story on monkey entertainment in Japan appeared in the March 2020 issue of National Geographic. Follow him on Instagram.

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