Berne's bearpit gets a major makeover

( dpa ) - Things are looking up for bears in the Swiss capital Berne which is famous for both these big, furry animals and the less than ideal conditions in which they are kept.

Now after many years the bears are about to get a new custom-built home on the outskirts of city named after what was allegedly the first wild beast killed by its hunting founder in the Middle Ages.

Bears have been kept in a pit in Berne for centuries but many visitors are dismayed to see the creatures languishing in an ancient pit in the Nydegggasse alongside the River Aare. The site is historically correct but it gives the animals little view of the world outside.

This year marks the last season for the "Baerengraben" which dates back to 1857 and once held as many as 12 bears. Modernisation in the mid 1990s did little to silence the criticism from tourists and animal rights activists who maintain that the sunken concrete oval measuring just 3.5 metres across pit is not a suitable place to keep Tana and Pedro - two Pyrenean brown bears born in 1981.

At night, the bears are locked in their cages but at their new stomping ground in a 6,000-square-metre park they will be able to gambol outside to their heart's content. The new riverside reserve is costing 9.7 million Swiss francs (9.6 million dollars) to build and will extend along the Aare.

"The money is there and construction work will continue throughout this year. The re-opening ceremony is planned for summer 2009," said Berne's head of tourism Markus Lergier. He makes no secret of the fact that he would have preferred to see the bears' new home finished in time for this summer's European Football Championship which Switzerland is co-hosting.

"Nevertheless we are looking forward to next year," said Lergier.

Visitors to the three Euro games in Berne this coming June and other tourists will still be able to peer at Tana and Pedro. A vendor will also be on hand as usual to sell the carrots and other food which visitors like to toss to the animals.

And although the bears will have to wait a while for more salubrious surroundings, city guide Domenico Bernabei says they enjoy a healthy, "80 per cent vegetarian diet" which includes plenty of grapes and other fruit.

Tana and Pedro were two years old when they arrived in Berne and as a rule they take the air in the summer months from 8.30 to 18.00 daily.

At 27, they are not yet ready for retirement but it is planned to settle a new pair of bears in the revamped reserve, with the aim of breeding cubs, said Lergier. The new park has been designed to resemble as far as possible the natural habitat of the bears, allowing them to roam at will 24 hours a day, to hibernate in caves, dig holes and hunt their own fish.

In their new home the bears may become a little harder to spot but most tourists will prefer this to having to see the animals in unnatural confinement.

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