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Last Updated: Monday, 8 November, 2004, 21:25 GMT
Bern bears get chance of liberty
Bears in the Bern bear pit
Bears see little of the world around them, except the sky
After nearly 500 years in a pit, Bern's famous bears are to get a new home - a riverside reserve on the edge of the old city.

With luck, the park will open in 2007, bringing to an end years of protests by angry tourists and animal lovers.

"There are worse bear pits, but the bears are confined, they look up and can only see the sky," said Mark Rissi of the Swiss Animal Protection society.

But the money - some 6.9m Swiss Francs (4.5m euro) has yet to be allocated.

The design for the new 10,000 square-metre park allows the bears to live outside 24 hours a day.

"Now they are locked in at night," says Mr Rissi. "But evening is when they are most active."

Skating rink

The bears will be able to hibernate in caves, dig in the ground and catch fish.

Tourists will still be able to see them - not from the parapet of a pit, but from an adjacent bridge over the river Aar.

Bern bear flag
The bear is on the city flag, and is an ever-present emblem
Bears were first brought to the Swiss capital in 1513, about 300 years after the city's founder named it after the first animal he killed on a hunting trip.

The symbol of the bear is on the city's flag, and is widely used for advertising restaurants, beers and other local attractions.

The conservative Bernese public were not initially enthusiastic about closing the historical bear pit, especially under pressure.

"They do not like criticism from outside," says Mr Rissi.

But the city was won over by the head of the city's zoo, Bernd Schildger, and a competition was held to select the best design for the new park.

The pit itself will become a skating rink.

Now the main obstacle is funding. Local authorities have yet to vote on the appropriation, which comes after a period of belt-tightening in the canton of Bern to deal with a huge budget deficit.

Timeline: Switzerland
27 Sep 04 |  Country profiles
Country profile: Switzerland
14 Jul 04 |  Country profiles

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