Refuge for Miljen France Gives Sanctuary to Bosnian Crime Boss' Bear

Miljen the bear suffered near starvation after being kept in a cage in a gangster's private zoo in Bosnia for eight years. But on Wednesday a new chapter began as he arrived at his new home in France, with two female bears waiting to keep him company.
Von Siobhán Dowling

Everyone likes a happy ending. And that is exactly what seems to be in the cards for Miljen. The bear from Bosnia-Herzegovina fell into the hands of a gangster as a cub and was recently found nearly starved in a cage. On Wednesday he arrived in France to live the high life in a sanctuary with two female bears as companions.

Back in 2000 after his mother was killed by hunters, Miljen was sold as a cub to a local mafia boss who had a private zoo. The man kept his exotic pets, such as Siberian tigers, in the garden of a hotel he owned which acted as a hang-out for local crime figures. In 2005 the crime boss was thrown in jail for human trafficking and most of the animals were sent to zoos but somehow Miljen was left stranded in his cage. He was kept alive by Darko Sevic, one of the hotel's waiters, who could only afford to feed him a loaf of bread a day and any scraps left over from the hotel restaurant. "I feel ashamed that he was in such a bad condition," Sevic told Reuters. "I tried to help him as much as I could."

The eight-year-old bear was finally rescued after he was spotted by a Serbian filmaker who was shooting a film in the area and who notified local animal rights group NOA. By then Miljen weighed just 75 kilograms when a bear of his age should have weighed 200 kilograms. Fedin Gunic of NOA told SPIEGEL ONLINE that the group had to try to find a refuge for the bear abroad, since there are no animal protection shelters in Bosnia.

In the end, it was the involvement of Respectons, a French animal protection group, that secured Miljen his new home in an animal sanctuary in western France. However, there were a number of legal hurdles to get over before the bear could be transported to his new abode. Bosnia is not a member of the European Union and has not signed the international convention on the transport of animals, so Miljen's rescuers had to enter a bureaucratic labyrinth of forms and applications to secure a visa.

Although Miljen was granted special dispensation in the end, the animal rights group was told it would still have to provide medical tests to prove the bear was in good health. It was then that the local villagers in Prijedor pitched in. Gunic told SPIEGLEL ONLINE that local NOA member and pet store owner Davor Gvozden collected donations and villagers would visit his store to bring food for the under-weight bear. After three months of intensive feeding the bear weighed over 150 kilograms and finally got the all clear.

He began his journey on Tuesday and was transported in an air-conditioned van with video surveillance, accompanied by specially trained vets and French journalists.

According to NOA the bear arrived safely in France on Wednesday and was due to arrive at the Refuge de l'Arche in western France in the late afternoon. Gunic said that the group was very happy about his condition. He said that the vet who had accompanied Miljen on his journey had confirmed he was "calm and not nervous on the journey … Everything went smoothly."

"He is in the best possible hands, no other place in the world is better suited to taking care of him," Gunic said.

There are two female bears to keep him company at his new French home near the Loire valley. They will be the first bears Miljen has ever encountered after spending eight years in a cage.

But the liberated bear will have to wait just a little bit longer before he gets to meet his new friends. A spokeswoman for the sanctuary told SPIEGEL ONLINE that Miljen will be kept in a separate enclosure so that he can recover from his journey. "We want to leave him alone for a few days to destress." she said. "The distance between Bosnia and France is 2,500 kilometers. That can be pretty exhausting."

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