From: Alice Taylor
EXCLUSIVE: Four Paws Speaks on Bear Meat, Illegal Wildlife Trade, and Animal Cruelty in Albania

Earlier this week, British media published an article highlighting the worrying trend of buying and selling animals in Albania. Even more concerningly, they noted that Bar Restaurant Egnis in Drillon was serving up bear meat on their menu.

Hunting bears is illegal in Albania. Serving them up in restaurants along with other wildlife could lead to outbreaks of zoonotic diseases, according to experts. Alongside the bear meat for sale, animal-protection charity Four Paws found bears, monkeys and birds of prey being sold on local online marketplaces.

But this is not the first time Albania’s treatment of animals has made headlines. Last year, Four Paws were involved in the rescue and rehoming of several bears that had been kept in a restaurant in the country. 

Exit reached out to the charity to get their views on the situation in the country and what can be done to improve it.

When asked about the overall situation for animal rights in Albania, Sajmir Shehu said that there has been a notable improvement since 2015, especially regarding public awareness and reactions against cases of cruelly to animals. The problem seems to be that while changes in legislation have been made in line with the EU acquis, law enforcement is not taking the matter seriously.

In terms of the attitude of the authorities, Shehu said that while the authorities including the police and Municipalities are on the whole, helpful but there is an element of bureaucracy and “unwillingness of individuals to do their job.” He added that it is the role of the Albanian authorities to lead the way in animal protection and that Four Paws should be a support to this, not the other way round as it is currently. 

“Albanian wild fauna and nature, in general, must be protected by Albanians. Four Paws and other organisations can and will help but the cooperation must be based on mutual understanding and support.” He added.

Four Paws have made several interventions in the country, removing wild animals that are being kept in horrible conditions. When dealing with their captors, the attitude can be rather mixed. While of course there are cases of aggression and threats, Shehu said most of those keeping wild animals thought they were doing a good thing by feeding them. 

“The wellbeing of animals is above all, their freedom,” he said.

Exit asked Four Paws what they thought of various Municipalities, including Tirana, poisoning stray dogs or picking them up and dumping them. Shehu was quick to condemn the action noting that “stray dogs are in that situation because of human behaviour, because of human deeds which those dogs don’t deserve.”

He added: “Poisoning or dumping them in remote areas is cruel and not a sustainable solution. Catch-neuter-release is a proven and human method to deal with strays. Municipalities have the means to properly deal with the issue…”

Asides from bear meat on the menu in Drillon, a number of restaurants in Albania still keep bears to ‘entertain’ guests. One such location, ‘Sofra e Ariut’ in Tirana is currently in talks with Four Paws to remove the last remaining bear to a bear sanctuary. The owners, Shehu said, have agreed to transfer the bear but he said it’s down to the Albanian authorities to assist with the documentation.

So what can we do as citizens and journalists to help the situation?

“Civil society organisations, journalists, citizens, everyone must think of nature as common property which must not be destroyed by the activity or the wishes of certain politicians and certain people in charge at certain institutions,”

Shehu adds: “Albania has a marvellous landscape, rich flora and fauna, and it should be treated with due respect.”

He believes that everyone has to do their bit, firstly by ending the indifference to nature and secondly by understanding that nature is our biggest asset. 

“Earth is not our property, it is our life source that humankind is poisoning and destroying.”

Shehu said to tell family and friends that animals are a part of our world and deserve to live in peace and freedom, to denounce cases of illegal activity or trade, and for the media and NGOs to publicise the issue as much as possible, add to boycott businesses that are cruel or that display animals alive, or stuffed.

The organisation is also calling for a wildlife sanctuary and rescue centre- Shehu said they have been advocating it for a long time. 

“A project and a feasibility study has already been presented to the Ministry of Tourism and Environment,” he said.

In the meantime, those observing violence and cruelty towards animals, illegal keeping/selling/advertising of animals, and the offering of exotic or illegal wild animals in restaurants are encouraged to report it to the state authorities and NGOs such as Four Paws.