For seven years, the German animal trainer Maxy Niedermeyer and her Bulgarian brown bear Natascha lived on an estate in the Dutch lowlands.

Before she ended up in the Netherlands, Maxy (80) traveled around the world with circuses; her acts with bears, lions and tigers drew full tents.

Her career came to an abrupt end when European legislation forbade performing with wild animals. She left for the Netherlands where her animals could be taken care of at a wild animal foundation.

Maxy wearing her old circus costume. Max made the costumes for her acts herself. Circus life is hard work. Several shows a day, the training and care of the animals and sometimes trips to a new city three times a week. (November 9, 2014) © Loek Buter

The bond with Natascha was so close that she found it very difficulty to part with her. After consultation with the Dutch government it was decided that it was better not to part the bear from her trainer. Natascha was allowed to stay with Maxy and enjoy a well-deserved retirement.

From the day the bear Natascha was born in Sofia, Maxy bottle fed her. Together they traveled all over the world and stood in front of sold-out circus tents from Germany to Israel and from Tunisia to Azerbaijan.

What was applauded in full circus tents fifty years ago, today most Europeans regard as unacceptable animal suffering. Maxy says she has always taken good care of her animals. Her life’s work was to train wild animals so that people could experience them live. She showed that wild animals are also loving creatures that should not be kept at a distance.

Much to Maxy’s great sadness, her bear died in May 2021, aged 43, an exceptionally old age. The prospect of a life without her animals weighs heavily on her.

— Loek Buter

Editor’s note: This story was selected as a special Juror’s Pick for the LensCulture Portrait Awards 2022. Discover all of the winners and finalists here.