I’ve been trying to write this blog ever since I returned from Chengdu and my visit to the amazing bears. Why am I finding it so difficult? It’s the bears – I just don’t know how to sum them up. Majestic creatures – yes. Awe inspiring – yes, but that doesn’t really go far enough. The trip has had a major effect on me – just as many people told me it would, just as it does on everyone that visits.
I don’t want this blog to simply be a diary of my trip I really want to tell you the bears’ story along side that of the utterly magnificent Jill Robinson.
I have never met anyone like Jill.
Having started campaigning for the welfare of moon bears in 1993, and moving to rescue them from 1994, Animals Asia have rescued over 400 bears and have sanctuaries in both China and Vietnam. One woman started this charity with a vision of ending the bear bile trade in Asia.
Jill is recognised as one of the worlds leading experts on the trade and yet when you meet her it is the absence of ego that you first notice; she is eager to listen even to the untrained and goggle-eyed-tourist that was me. Her passion for the bears is clear to see and spending time with her at the sanctuary was a very special thing indeed.
The sanctuary itself is a tranquil place made up of zones housing different bears. Some need their own space like the beautiful brown bear Oliver.
Oliver is a very special brown bear that was in a cage for 30 years. 30 years in a cage being drained of his bile every day. He now ambles slowly (due to his legs being very obviously damaged) around his own little piece of paradise and while we observe him taking drinks from a little pond in his enclosure. The fact he is still alive is nothing short of a miracle and still brings a smile to Jill’s face.
Another bear that moved me was beautiful Bluebell. We had been walking around the sanctuary for most of the day and had seen the wonderful Peter Egan’s namesake Peter bear. We were in this part of the sanctuary at a particular feeding time and there were a few bears eagerly waiting for their food. This is where we saw for the first time some stereotypical, caged bear behaviour – displayed at this point in time a swaying of the head or pacing – a coping mechanism if you like. This was the time when I saw Bluebell, a beautiful lady missing a leg and an eye. It was her face that tipped me over the edge – the cruelty these bears have had to endure which will obviously never leave them really hit home. It must be one of the cruelest things man does to an animal – trap them in a cage for their natural life to drain them dry.
Seeing a moon bear close up for the first time is difficult to describe. They are like no other creature I’ve ever come across. You can tell these large fur balls mean business – they have claws that could rip your arm off in a second and yet all you want to do is give them a hug (we did not do this!). They are strong and elegant creatures but the most remarkable thing about these bears is their willingness to forgive.
Some had been locked in cages for the majority of their lives, cramped and unable to move whilst being tortured to extract their bile, but we witnessed Bamse the bear having blood taken. After all he had been through he voluntarily put his arm into a hole so the needle could draw the blood – the only thing needed for a little persuasion was condensed milk (might suggest this to my Doctor!). It was truly humbling sight, particularly because this is not something could have happened overnight. A long process is undertaken with each bear, built on trust, (condensed milk) and the kindness of the staff. This really demonstrated the values of Animals Asia to me. The time and love spent on each and every bear is what makes this place truly remarkable.
At the sanctuary the bears move around freely, foraging for food as part of their enrichment programme.
The staff put various fruits and vegetables in sometimes difficult to reach places so the bears have to find the food, thus stimulating their natural instincts. This is done daily, but never repetitively in the same place. Animals Asia methods are all about trying to provide as natural a habitat as possible. This is not a zoo; Theres no petting, No stroking and no posed pictures with a bear here, and the only part of the sanctuary’s activities that don’t mimic the wild are to do with the bears health.
The bears have a health check every 2 years – checking teeth, mobility and scanning for any disease and I was lucky enough to see Harley’s health check up close. I wont go into the details as not being from a veterinary background I observed with fascination as the team, along with my travel buddy Marc Abraham (or Marc the vet) set about doing the various checks (which Im sure Marc will tell you about in his blog). The health check really was fascinating – seeing Harley up close was amazing. His fur was quite corse and his hands and feet so soft – a bit like the back of a dogs pads.
I saw harley’s scars from where the bile was extracted and felt how hard that part of him was compared to the rest and where he had been biting the bars of his previous prison making groves in his teeth.
The care with which the health check was carried out was remarkable – his hands and his foot (Harley only has one leg) were covered in knitted water bottle type covers to keep him warm. I was also lucky enough to give harley’s nails a bit of a trim!
Harley had to have a tooth extracted which was a long and tricky process due to the size of the teeth. However when we saw Harley the next day he was chomping down on a carrot!
As we walked around the sanctuary Jill showed us the grave yard and memorial which was very moving. Local staff visit and tend to the bears graves – each one bearing the mark of the moon bears – of course the Chinese love these bears just as much as Jill does.
The great thing is that attitudes in China are changing. When I visited only seven years ago there were around 10 animal welfare charities. There are now, in 2013, more than 100 animal welfare groups in the country. Animals Asia help educate the former and even current farmers of bears. It is that willingness to engage has won them great advancements in the cause and now the Chinese government is on side in the fight against the bear bile trade.
Of course its not just the bears that Animals Asia help – they help fight the dog meat trade and are encouraging therapy sessions in their Doctor Dog programme – I will bring you more on this in Part 2 of this blog.