On the edge of the old town of Bern, Switzerland, lay one of Bern’s most famous tourist attractions: the Bärengraben, or Bear Pits. The city, is smothered in bears, bear cookies, bear sculptures, bear doorknobs, bear flags, the cities very name means “Bear” in Swiss.
Legend has it in 1191 Duke Berthold the Fifth swore to name his newly founded town after the first animal he slay in the surrounding forest, which turned out to be a bear. The town embraced this bear-centric world view and decided that if they were going to be called bear, they should have some bears.
Set up in 1513, the bear pits were a big hit, with luminaries such as the German Emperor, the King of Siam, Alexander Dumas, Einstien (it was a short walk from his apartment), and even Lenin stopping by.
In an age before animal rights, the bears were treated inhumanly and kept crowded in the small pit, resulting in fights between the bears and the resulting injuries. Fed a vegetarian diet, onlookers tossed bits of cheese to the well fed animals. The bears did occasionally get their fill of meat when an eager onlooker tumbled head over heels into the pit. In 1903 a drunk convict fell into the pit, passed out, and spent the night there. He was incredibly lucky, he was about to be mauled to death when authorities found him and intervened.
Things got slightly better for the bears over the years, but the pit (redone over the years in concrete, and later with some foliage added to make it look more natural) was still much too small for the large animals. By the 2000s the bear pit, and the mangy, bored bears eating hunks of cheese in it were becoming an embarrassment for the wealthy and progressive Bern.
As of 2009 the last two remaining bears were put down due to health problems and the bear pit was closed for good, the first time in 496 years. Bern plans to open a new BärenPark or bear park, with a much larger open-air habitat next to the river.
The BearPark in Bern reported to the public, October 25, 2009.
The new bears of Bern now live in a 6000 m2 park along the banks of the River Aare. The large bear pit is now a historic monument and the smaller bear pit now is open to the public and the location of the Bear pit gift shop.