The owner of the restaurant, in Armenia, said he no longer had any use for the animals and could not afford to feed them.
The mother bear and her two five-year-old sons are part of a series of rescue missions of wild bears held captive for “entertainment” in the country, after a government crackdown.
It is not uncommon to see bears in cages at restaurants or shopping centres in Armenia. They are often caught as cubs and spend their lives in captivity to attract tourists.
Rescuers have warned that if others are not saved, they could die of starvation and neglect.
The International Animal Rescue (IAR) charity said it had been campaigning to rescue the bears at the Ashtaraki Dzor restaurant for a year, but that the owner had refused to hand them over. A petition with nearly 100,000 signatures also urged the owner to give them up.
But when Covid-19 shut down businesses, he was left without food or funds to feed the animals. IAR and Armenian rescuers mounted an emergency mission to save the trio, sedating them to be taken away.
In 2017, the organisations launched a campaign to free all Armenia’s caged bears, and to date have rescued nearly 30, already being cared for at a sanctuary in the mountains.
The government now forces restaurant owners to sign a document pledging not to take bears and keep them in cages.
Ruben Khachatryan, who led the rescue team, said: “There is always an element of risk when anaesthetising any animal, and when you are dealing with three wild bears in a small space, you have to plan everything carefully. Fortunately, it all went without a hitch.”
Alan Knight, chief executive of IAR, said: “Our bear rescue centre is close to capacity, but we are making space to accommodate these poor animals while we also work on plans to expand our facilities.
“Once out of quarantine, they will be given freedom to enjoy fresh air and exercise in a natural environment. Their lives can only get better.
“It’s ironic that this deadly pandemic has produced a positive outcome for the bears. However, we can’t forget that there are still many more living in dreadful conditions.”
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