KUTAREVO, Croatia – Usually in Europe, when bear cubs get used to humans, they cannot survive in the wild. And when they grow too big, they're shot.
But not in the remote mountain village of Kutarevo, Croatia. Here since 2002, retired social worker Ivan Crnkovic-Pavenka has provided a haven for brown bears that wander into villages in search of food and develop too strong a taste for human leftovers.
Two sanctuaries walled off with simple chain-link fences allow the eight resident bears to roam freely beside, but not into, the village. To the rear lies forest wilderness, where the domesticated bears would face risk of attack by wild bears. So the bears are confined to two enclosures approximately 150 meters (yards) wide each.
"We wanted to offer an alternative to killing orphan bear cubs that got attached to human civilization," Crnkovic-Pavenka said.
Hundreds of volunteers worldwide come to Kutarevo annually to help Crnkovic-Pavenka. Visitors are advised to enjoy watching the bears, a mixture of juveniles and adults, play and eat and laze about.
While most of Europe's brown bears have been wiped out, Croatia's native population is estimated at 1,000.
A volunteer from France, Amelie Jaquet, said other European countries should follow Croatia's lead if they have any native bears left.
"When you come here to help, you actually realize that something is wrong in your own country," Jaquet said. "We killed all the bears and we do not know how to live with nature anymore."
Crnkovic-Pavenka says he's experienced just one life-threatening event in 13 years' work at the sanctuary, when rescuing a German volunteer who had wandered into an enclosure and started serenading the bears by guitar. The German was bitten but suffered no serious wounds, and the bear had to be shot to rescue Crnkovic-Pavenka.
Associated Press reporter Sabina Niksic in Sarajevo, Bosnia, contributed to this report.