The Bulgarian bear sanctuary is run in cooperation with the French Brigitte Bardot Foundation, has offered a life-long home to bears rescued mostly as former dancing bears from Bulgaria, Serbia and Albania since 2000. To find out more about the daily going ons at BEAR SANCTUARY Belitsa we interviewed chief animal caretaker, Kalina Valchinkova, who has been at the sanctuary since October 2020! Kalina gives us an exclusive take behind the scenes!
Can you describe an average day at work?
A day always starts with coffee! After that is feeding of the animals, checking the fences and the sanctuary itself for anything irregular and discussion about daily tasks. I’m preparing training and enrichment schedules for the week in advance, and we proceed with whatever needs to be done for the day. We do behavioural observations of the bears, and there are days where half of the time is spent in meetings discussing future plans and actions, vet checks and other day-to-day tasks. In general, every day is something different. We work with animals so not everything can be set in a schedule.
What`s the most unusual experience you`ve had working at the sanctuary?
It’s hard to say. I haven’t been in the sanctuary for a long time and most of the daily activities seemed unusual in the beginning. However, I can think of a funny story: It was one very average day when I was walking around the enclosures on my way to the caretaker house. My mind was preoccupied with emergency plans which I was trying to memorise, so a thought passed through – what should I do if I see an animal escaping, just at this moment. As I’m thinking this, I pass through a point where I can see the whole enclosure of Riku (who is very young and enthusiastic bear). Keep in mind that he usually comes running when he sees one of his caretakers.
I look around and I didn’t see him anywhere. I turned to the side and I see (and hear) 200 kilos running towards me. My mind completely ignores the presence of a fence at that moment, and all I can think of was “okay, I’m dead”. Two seconds later when I finally was able to take a breath, I started jokingly told him off for scaring me, but continued my journey with shaky legs.
What's one thing that makes your job feel special?
Bears are highly intelligent and amazing animals that can always surprise you. The fact that the animals in our sanctuary are starting to show their natural instincts with time spend in better conditions is making everything we do more meaningful. It is an amazing opportunity to observe those magnificent creatures in such a proximity.
What has been one of the most gratifying or memorable parts of your job?
One month after I started, we transferred a bear named Teddy from horrible conditions in North Macedonia to the sanctuary. The first time he went outside was amazing. I was watching in complete awe how he was testing the grass for the first time and looking around all that space. It is a very fond memory. We kept joking that both of us are 'newbies' at the park.
What is one of the most challenging aspects of working with animals/working with the sanctuary?
Making decisions that can impact the animal. Even if it’s just whether to move a bear in a different enclosure or socialise it with another bear, there is always a risk that the animal won’t feel okay and there is no way to know that for sure. No matter how good you can read its behaviour and taken in all the necessary precautions, there is always a small voice in the back of your head saying, what if something bad happens?
What did you do before you joined FOUR PAWS?
I finished my master’s degree in Endangered species recovery and was working as a research assistant in the Bulgarian Academy of Science.
What is one of your favourite things about working in the sanctuary?
The place itself. It is remarkable experience to wake up every morning in the forest surrounded by the sound of animals around you. For a person, who have lived most of their life in the city, it was a very welcomed change of scenery.
Do you have a favourite animal at the sanctuary? If so, why?
All of them are special in their own way and I love different aspects of all their characters. From the sheer enthusiasm of Riku, through the calmness of Suzanna around her caretakers to the stubborn Marinka who always wants to annoy everyone around her (just joking, she is a sweetheart).
How has your work at the sanctuary changed your life and impacted your family/friends/community?
It made me commute a lot, which showed me how many bad drivers are in the country (ha-ha). Also, my family had to get used to not seeing me everyday and it is especially hard to explain to my dog where I am most of the time. But excluding this, everyone is always happy to listen to stories. The faces of strangers, when they see a very small woman who works with bears, never cease to make me laugh.
What do you like to do outside of work? What do you feel passionate about?
Sleeping. I’m very passionate about sleeping.