In 1998, Cristina saw three bears in a cage being used to attract customers into a restaurant in Romania. The country is home to 60 per cent of Europe’s brown bear population, and they are its most magnificent native species.
When she saw the same exploitative behaviour being repeated in other parts of her homeland, she felt compelled to help these animals return to their natural environment, and to change public attitudes towards their treatment.
But while the practice of capturing and keeping bears in cages was illegal in Romania, the authorities were unable to confiscate the abused animals because they had nowhere to rehome them.
Cristina solved this problem in 2005 by established Libearty Bear Sanctuary, a 160-acre forested area in Transylvania with freshwater pools, hibernation dens and plenty of trees.
The animal residents are able to forage for vegetation, nuts and fruit, with staff on hand to make sure they get all the nutrients they need and to administer medical care.
The sanctuary has rescued more than 100 animals since opening and is currently home to about 70 bears. Many have been saved from the illegal bear trade or rehomed from zoos which could not comply with European welfare standards when Romania joined the EU in 2007.
One resident – Odi – was kept in an iron cage for 12 years before being set free at Libearty. She arrived with wounds on her paws from standing on a metal grid in all weathers but now swims and climbs trees.
The public can visit for a glimpse of these creatures at arm’s length during feeding time and welfare standards are extremely high.
The project has helped create a national feeling of pride towards native bears, along with support for their protection.
Cristina and her organisation – Millions of Friends Association – also run one of the largest rescue centres for strays in Romania, helping around 700 dogs.