Velga Vitola loves animals with all her heart - even going so far as to raise a motherless bear cub in her own house alongside her two children. That was too much animal love for some of her fellow Latvians.
Hikers wend their way along the Ligatne Nature Trails, a forest on the banks of the Gauja, Latvia's longest river, to take in the fresh air and the beautiful scenery. The woods are home to about 50 captive animals, including birds, squirrels, wild boars, elk and brown bears. Many of them have suffered some kind of injury and were brought to this park sanctuary by the locals who found them.
Though Latvia boasts five zoos, it has no official rehabilitation centers where wild animals can be cared for after being hit by a car or hurt by farming machinery. Instead it has Velga Vitola.
Dubbed the "mother of all animals" by her fellow Latvians, the 56-year-old has worked in Ligatne for more than three decades. She was inspired by her father, a teacher, who gave lectures on environmental protection in schools when she was growing up.
"He instilled all this love of nature in me during my childhood," Vitola says. "And he bought books about Joy Adamson and Gerald Durrell, about these animal lovers and their life. I read these books and decided I wanted to have a similar life."
It's the bears that are closest to Vitola's heart.
In the mid-1990s, three cubs born in Riga's zoo were brought to Ligatne and placed in Vitola's care. One of the bears, named Made, gave birth to her first cub a few years later. But Made refused to nurture her newborn and Vitola realized that if she didn't take action, the cub would die.
"I started to care for the cub just hours after the birth, and the cub weighed just around half a kilo (1 pound)," she recalls. "A cub usually spends two or three months - from winter to spring - with his mother. So, if I begin nurturing the cub then I have to behave like the bear mother."
Vitola named the cub Ilzite and showered it with attention. The baby bear required warmth, so it lived inside Vitola's home.
"I never take any unnecessary risks. And I never put my children's health and life in danger either," Vitola says.
The cub grew up alongside her then nine-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter.
"At home, we played with the bear and we went for walks with it in the forest. The cub didn't leave a single scar on my children because I taught them how to treat the animal," she says.
Eventually she built a special outdoor enclosure near the forest for Ilzite.
When it's feeding time, Vitola enters an empty cage near Ilzite's enclosure. She prepares a meal of salmon, fruits, vegetables and dried foods, while the bear waits nearby. Once the food's ready, Vitola leaves the cage and lets the bear in.
Ilzite digs in and gobbles up the meal. Afterwards Vitola strokes and kisses the bear's nose through the metal gratings and Ilzite licks her hand. Vitola explains that the 12-year-old bear still needs physical contact with her mother.
"I'm the only one who can do what I'm doing now. And I'm the only person who has such a relationship with the bear. I've nurtured her since she was the size of my palm."
Last year, Vitola's strong bond with animals became a source of conflict. Ilzite's mother, Made, who had been living in an enclosure on the forest trails, managed to dig a hole under a fence and escape. After several unsuccessful attempts to lure her back, huntsmen shot the bear, saying she was a threat to locals.
It was a painful time for Vitola.
"You can never be 100 percent sure that the animals won't escape, even if you have done everything you can to prevent this," Vitola says."If we had had a tranquilizer gun, then we would have been able to sedate the bear. But we didn't have one. And that's why the authorities decided to kill the bear, although I was against it."
The incident sparked a media frenzy. The environment minister criticized Vitola for kissing dangerous animals in front of cameras. He said that around 1,000 children are attacked by animals in Latvia every year and accused Vitola of putting them in danger by giving the impression that wild animals are not dangerous.
Solvita Viba from the NGO Animal Friend was among Vitola's critics. She says wild animals should never be treated like pets.
"Wild animals have their own environment and humans have their own. They should come into contact only by observation," Viba says. "Under no circumstances should humans involve wild animals in their lives, build relationship with them and subject animals to their behavior. People are not part of their habitat."
A special relationship
Vitola now avoids coming into contact with animals in public. But she thinks that it's the responsibility of parents to educate kids about the danger of vicious animals - including dogs. Vitola says that the relationship between a human and an animal can go beyond master-and-owner, or captive beast and zookeeper.
"I might be the only person in Latvia who publicly shows that relations between human beings and animals can be different. They can be based on understanding, trust and knowledge and without hurting the animals," she says, adding that relationships like that do indeed exist.
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