Bear Cubs for Romania

Reflections

Country desk officers get involved in all sorts of weird stuff, and one of my more unusual experiences in that role took place while I was on the Romania desk.

In early September 1983, a staffer for Senator Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), Mark Barnes, called for assistance. He explained that the state of Alaska had offered two orphaned Alaskan brown bear cubs to Romania for the Bucharest zoo. A Romanian official would be arriving in the U.S. shortly to accompany the cubs back to his country.

Mark was scheduled to escort the gentleman in question, who spoke only Romanian, to Anchorage, where there would be a program for him. While assisting Mark with arrangements for the visit, I learned that no provision had been made for an interpreter and asked how the hosts in Alaska planned to communicate with their guest. Mark apparently had not thought about that.

After checking with my supervisor for travel permission and funding approval, I told Mark that while I was by no means a professional interpreter, I did speak Romanian and was a lot better than what they had, i.e., nothing. He welcomed the offer, and soon I was off for my first visit to “Seward’s Icebox.”

Upon arriving in Anchorage, I met up with Mark and the Romanian, named Aurelian Neacsu. According to his calling card, he held a high position in Romania’s hunting bureaucracy, which should have been a tip-off.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game was, effectively, the host for the visit, and its representatives did a fine job. Program highlights included a trip by small plane over the wilderness to track about a dozen bears wearing radio collars. The Fish and Game officials plotted the bears’ movements as we gazed down from above, an awesome sight.

While I was by no means a professional interpreter, I did speak Romanian and was a lot better than what they had, i.e., nothing.

Another was a trip by “float plane” to a cabin on Cook Inlet, southwest of Anchorage, where we went duck hunting. The Alaskans and Mr. Neacsu all proved their skills, shooting several ducks, while I only frightened a couple. As a confirmed duck lover, I was just as happy with that outcome.

The program also included some sightseeing on Mount McKinley (Denali) and a glacier, plus some pleasant social gatherings.

Between scheduled events, Mr. Neacsu and I had opportunities to chat on various subjects, with mixed success. (Through my efforts to facilitate conversations on unfamiliar topics I gained much greater appreciation for the work of “real” interpreters.)

Though Mr. Neacsu seemed somewhat taciturn, he had no one else with whom to converse and appeared to welcome the opportunity to talk, especially since I steered clear of Romania’s internal politics.

The conversation I remember best dealt with Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. Recalling that Gaddafi had been to Romania in 1981 for hunting, I asked Mr. Neacsu about that visit. He immediately became animated, expressing scorn for the whole Libyan entourage. He said that they were terrible hunters, unskilled in handling weapons, and spent much of their time guzzling scotch and chasing skirts. In short, he held them in contempt.

From embassy reporting, I was aware of rumors that one of Gaddafi’s group members had been killed or injured in a hunting accident near Sinaia during the visit. When I asked Mr. Neacsu for some details on the incident, he was surprised I knew about it and inquired about my source. Trying to appear omniscient, I replied that it was our business to know everything that happened in Romania.

During one of our conversations I referred to the bear cubs’ future life at the Bucharest zoo. Mr. Neacsu appeared confused.

He then related what (he said) had actually happened. While hunting in the forest, one of the Libyans had been carrying his loaded rifle with the butt down, the barrel pointing up and the safety off.

The rifle butt struck a rock and the rifle discharged, propelling a bullet upward through the jaw of the unfortunate Libyan and out the top of his head. He never had a chance. Mr. Neacsu had little sympathy for anyone who ignored the most basic rules of firearms safety.

At some point during one of our conversations, I referred to the bear cubs’ future life at the Bucharest zoo. Mr. Neacsu appeared confused. The cubs would not be going to a zoo, he said. They would be bred with local bears to produce even bigger ursine targets for President Nicolae Ceausescu to shoot.

That was news to me—and to my Alaskan colleagues when I told them. Though they were unhappy, there was nothing they could do about it. I never learned how the misunderstanding, if that it was, had arisen. Trying to mollify the Alaskans, I told them it was not their bear cubs who would be at risk but their eventual offspring.

My Alaskan friends maintained the zoo story at least in public; local press reports on the bears referred only to the zoo as their eventual destination.

Lufthansa provided complimentary transport for the bear cubs as far as Germany, where the Romanians were to pick them up and take them the rest of the way on their national carrier, TAROM. I watched the Lufthansa flight leave Anchorage but never heard about the fate of the Alaskan brown bear cubs. I hope in this case, no news is good news.

Retired Senior Foreign Service Officer Jonathan B. Rickert spent the majority of his 35-year career in or dealing with Central and Eastern Europe. His final two overseas posts were as deputy chief of mission in Sofia and then Bucharest.