The tradition of bears in Bern
The relationship between the city of Bern and its heraldic animal has a very long tradition. It is said to have been a bear that the founder of the city, Duke Berchtold V of Zähringen, was the first animal to kill here and to which the new city thus owes its name, according to legend. However, more recent name research assumes that the Celtic word “Berna” (cleft, ravine) gave the town its name. The first Celtic settlement was on the Enge peninsula, where the Aare forms a kind of cleft.
In 1513, the Bernese chronicler Valerius Anshelm reported how the victorious Bernese returning from the battle of Novara carried a live bear as war booty in their triumphal procession along with the captured flags. It was kept in the city moat in front of the Käfigturm. The first bear pit remained on the square still named Bärenplatz until 1764, when it had to give way to traffic and be relocated to the city gates (Schanzengraben near the Bollwerk). From there, the bears were moved again in 1857 to the lower end of the old town, to the site where the Bear Park is still located today.
In 1515, the first bear pit is opened on today’s Bärenplatz in Bern. The bear captured in 1513 in the battle of Novara (northern Italy) by the Swiss mercenaries fighting in Pope Julius II’s Holy Alliance against the French king was brought into the bear pit. Bartholomäus May, the most famous Bernese at the time, led the captured bear into the city with great pomp. From 1764, the Bear Pit at Bärenplatz, as well as its two successor structures at the Golattenmattgass Gate and in the area of the Great Redoubt (from 1820), had to make way for the increasing expansion of the city. The history of the Bärengraben.
Since 1857, bears have been kept in a two-part moat at the lower end of the Old Town after the Nydegg Bridge. In order to improve bear keeping, the historic enclosure, a monument of national importance, was extensively renovated from 1994 to 1996.
A wedge of sandstone blocks takes up the incline of the slope. Other blocks create shady and sunny spots, caves and rock for climbing. In pools, the bears can swim, play and cool off. A water channel reminds of the former dividing wall in the moat.
The old concrete floor has given way to a gravel-sand mixture. The bear digs a place to lie in it, finds warmth and moist coolness. The ground is spontaneously greening, mosses and lichens cover the stone blocks, wild plants grow out of the cracks.
Despite this improvement, the facility remained a “ditch”. Numerous complaints from Switzerland and abroad, as well as the new legal framework, prompted a fundamental rethink of bear management in Bern.
A project team from the Bern Zoo in collaboration with the City of Bern’s structural engineering office drew up the study, which was presented to the public on 2 March 2001. This resulted in a project competition. The winning project was presented on 7 November 2003.
On 30 August 2006, the City of Bern presented the overall report on the BearPark project and in 2007 the population of Bern gave the green light for the construction of the new bear enclosure with an 80% yes vote. The facility was opened on 22 October 2009.
The Bernese “BearPark” is an attraction known far beyond the country’s borders. Since 2009, the Bernese bears have had access to an animal-friendly, 6,000-square-metre park where they can stay 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and live out their natural behaviour.
In autumn 2021, a feasibility study clarified whether an extension of the facility towards the south would be possible from the point of view of geology, construction, landscape protection and monument preservation. The conclusion of this study was that an extension would be abandoned for the time being, as the costs would be too high and the benefit for the bears would not be too great.