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TIRANA, Albania – Three bears rescued from neglect in Albania have gone to a better place — Kosovo.
The brown bears — Pashuk, Tomi and Xhina — were released Tuesday at the Forest of Bears sanctuary in Pristina, where Austria-based Four Paws International cares for them.
The bears had been in the Albanian capital, Tirana, for a month after being taken from their owners, and were kept for a month for treatment at the zoo park until all documentation with Kosovo's sanctuary was completed. But Albanian authorities are struggling to look after rescued bears.
"They were not in very good conditions, in tiny cages, very bad food," said German veterinarian Frank Goritz, who had come to oversee their transport. "The general health condition was not so good."
"It's time for them to go to a better place now," he added.
Two younger bears — Rocky and Smocky — are to be flown to Germany on Friday.
Some 50 bears have been located in restaurants and resorts, or at beaches in western and southern Albania where people can pay to be photographed with one. The number of bears still in the wild in Albania is estimated at 100-150 and declining, said Elvana Ramaj, a biodiversity expert at Albania's Environment Ministry.
Owners have resisted handing them over, undeterred by a fine of 5,000 leks ($40; or 36 euros) for keeping a bear.
Ramaj said the keepers have no idea how to treat the animals and keep them in tiny cages to lure customers. If the bears remain captive for six months, they can no longer survive on their own in the wild.
"Albanian tourism has no profit from bears kept like this but it spreads a negative image from the exploitation of animals," said Environment Minister Lefter Koka.
This year 15 rescued brown bears have gone to sanctuaries in Kosovo, Germany, Greece and Italy.
Albania's government is working to raise 6 million euros ($6.7 million) to start building a sanctuary, hopefully next year, Ramaj said.
In March the Environment Ministry signed a deal with Four Paws to build a sanctuary near the Dajti Mountain, closed to Tirana, where the plan is to care for the remaining 35 captive bears.
The ministry also is preparing legislation to make it a crime to take a bear from the wild.