Farewell Our Precious Franzi

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Farewell Our Precious Franzi

[Ed. Note: To see the conditions Franzi was rescued from, visit our image gallery.]

From Animals Asia

Here too, in all her glory, was the most perfect and tragic example of an animal with “stress dwarfism”...possessing a “normal” bear-shaped head, but a crudely stunted body, she was a shell of an animal who had been squashed and trapped in a cage for 25 years of her life.

This afternoon, as I peel Franzi her last grape, I think back to when I fell in love with her for the first time.


Franzi only recently rescued from a bear bile farm as she arrived at the sanctuary

It was on the 6th December 2002 when she arrived from the bear farm – and quickly became the bear described as both winning and breaking our hearts.

Franzi was christened by her kind sponsor in Germany, Frau Alexandra Oetker, with a name that just seemed to fit her perfectly. But on this day it was no time to celebrate as we looked at the tiniest bear cringing in the corner of the smallest cage we had ever seen. Franzi had given up all hope – and small wonder.


Franzi...happy and free at the sanctuary

Cruelly declawed and de-toothed, a large abscess under her chin, and a hole in her abdomen pouring with bile and pus, Franzi was a victim of the bear farm industry, milked daily for her bile. Here too, in all her glory, was the most perfect and tragic example of an animal with “stress dwarfism”; possessing a “normal” bear-shaped head, but a crudely stunted body, she was a shell of an animal who had been squashed and trapped in a cage for 25 years of her life.

She wouldn’t look at us at all, but stared at the bottom of her cage, her chest rising and falling as she breathed great gulps of fear in anticipation of who would hurt her next. Suddenly her nose quivered and her head turned towards me, as she caught the smell of something never before experienced, but just too tempting to ignore. Here was a fruity shake with strawberries, apples, mangos, condensed milk and jam, just in front of her nose – and, even more astonishingly, it was all for her.

Gingerly poking out her soft, pink tongue, Franzi took her first taste – and there was no going back as she closed her eyes and slurped, and slurped, and slurped. As she got to the bottom of the pot I poured the rest onto my fingers – not the most sensible thing to do with a newly rescued bear – and felt the softness of her velvety lips as she gently sucked the remainder of the best drink of her life.

From there it was all on her terms, with Franzi training us perfectly and knowing when to turn all the screws. Her love of grapes saw her spitting out the skin and pips in contempt until she had taught us that they were never to be offered again without peeling and de-seeding them first. Then, standing firm during bouts of inappetence, which saw us nervously trying a variety of “proper” bear food – until we once again relented and offered her exactly what she was holding out for – her favourite sachets of dog food with gravy.

In January 2003, a month after she arrived, she continued to worry us all with her bouts of ill health and refusal to eat. Gail, our previous Veterinary Director, was particularly worried about her; noting her constant respiratory effort and associated lung problems – and preparing us for the worst when she said that it “didn’t look good”.

Seven years later, and in her normal style of ignoring all sound veterinary science and advice, Franzi has happily tottered on, enjoying her life and deciding for herself exactly when it is time to go.

And, when we weren’t worrying about her, Franzi always made us laugh. Politely described as a “windy” bear, she would burp and fart with abandon – usually when I was showing her off to a very large group of visitors; timing it just right as they stood respectfully around her den, listening to the poignant story of our very special bear with a sad and tragic past. How could we be serious when she let rip with all the smugness of an elderly Aunt.

On a cold day in winter, I looked out of my window onto her secret garden, which backs on to my room, and saw her carrying the hugest pile of straw in her mouth as she strode purposefully back to her den, anticipating just how she liked her bed made up, thank you very much.

There are no words to describe my sadness now this afternoon, offering this brave little bear her last supper. Adopting her perfect pose of sitting up at the den bars, she begins her small meal with a taster of rich beef and gravy dog food, followed by a piece of mince tart. The latter in recognition that a) she won’t see Christmas this year and b) in memory of the immortal words of Steve Irwin (rest in peace) who called her a “hot little tart” the first time he set eyes on her. As it turned out, Steve was spot on because, as time went by, this rather choosy female who had hated the presence of all other bears in “her” space, finally became attracted to brain-damaged Rupert – and the most unique and loving friendship was born.

They adored each other – Franzi weighing a paltry 60kgs and literally dwarfed by a bear three times her size, but who was dominated by her from beginning to end. She would flirt and flounce in spring and then walk away when he appeared interested – leaving him to cozy up to a bag full of straw.

In fact, the only times she honored her love-struck toy boy with anything resembling affection was on the coldest of winter days as she snuggled down next to him to keep her little body warm. The rest of the time she would keep him on his toes and show him exactly who was boss.

As she continues enjoying her food, other memories come flooding back. I remember her dislike of cherry tomatoes, but her love of playing with them instead.

She had a quirky, endearing habit of carefully clutching them in her clawless paws before raising her arms high, and throwing them over her shoulder. And woe betied Rupert if he came too close in the hope of hoovering up the remains of something she obviously didn’t want. A well aimed thwack on his nose would see him backing off in respect and returning only when she had decided to walk away and leave him to her leftovers.

Finally this afternoon, for dessert, she graciously accepts some peeled green grapes (seedless of course) before being told for the very last time how much she is loved by us all.

Even with constant medication and veterinary care, her abdomen is unnaturally distended and uncomfortable because her heart and lungs are struggling to cope. With 6 litres of fluid drained a few weeks ago, and now filling up again, it is clear that this treatment can’t continue and her quality of life now tells us that it is time for her to go.

So, sleeping under anaesthetic in her final health-check, blissfully unaware that her special care area is as full as it can be, with her family now around her saying goodbye.