“There’s a bear in there”
As of July 2011, there are 79 beautiful bears including two mischievous cubs that play, rest, walk, frolic, swim, socialize and live what appears to be a very relaxed and normal life. Although they are in an enclosed area at the Vietnam Bear Rescue Centre, these very lucky bears have actually been rescued from a life of misery. This facility is located in the Tam Dao National Park which is a 90 minute drive from Hanoi and was initially set up by a remarkable English woman, Jill Robinson. In 1993, a chance visit to a farm in southern China changed Jill’s life forever when she discovered the very cruel practice of bear bile farming and just how much the bears suffered from this inhumane process. “Animals Asia Foundation” was eventually formed in 1998 to protect these animals.
Before being rescued, these poor creatures were doomed to a hideous life of torture in a trade that extracts bile from the bear’s gall bladder, a practice that’s has been happening for hundreds of years for its use in traditional Asian medicine. Initially bile was collected by slaying wild bears and removing their gall bladders. The bile was then extracted and sold exclusively to members of high society for curing numerous medical ailments. This bile was thought of as the magic elixir for many ailments that cured everything from headaches, reducing fever, protecting the liver, improving eyesight, breaking down gall stones and also acting as an anti inflammatory.
Due to high demand, commercial farming of bile extraction from bears begun in the 1980’s so that bears had to be kept in captivity and milked for their bile on a regular basis.
The method of bile extraction is by needle and syringe through the gall bladder. Larger farms may use an ultra sound machine to locate the gall bladder but generally they just stab blindly damaging surrounding organs. Bears are sedated daily so bile can be extracted. Bears suffer horribly when bile is extracted in this way and have been seen banging their heads against their cages and chewing their paws from the extreme pain. These beautiful animals are kept in horrible conditions in cages where they can hardly move. Bears in captivity on these farms suffer ailments such as fur loss, stunted growth, malnutrition and muscle mass loss from lack of movement. This torturous method leads to nasty infections and these bears eventually become very sick and die. Bears in the wild can be expected to live for about 30 years. In captivity, some bears only live for about 5 to10 very painful years, Unfortunately some farmed bears can live for up tp 15 to 30 years due to the amount of antibiotics farmers use to keep the bears alive when infection is spreading.
With thousands of bears now in captivity, bile is also used for non medicinal purposes such as the making of soaps and shampoos. Everything that bear bile was supposedly meant to do in the past, can now be commercially and synthetically produced without having to put these animals through unnecessary pain and miseryAsian bears are now in perilous danger of extinction as ever increasing numbers of wild bears are captured to supplement numbers in bile farms throughout the region. More than 3,600 bears are known to be held in captivity in Vietnam alone and farmers admit that their animals do not breed in captivity, requiring them to purchase wild-born cubs from neighboring countries such as Cambodia and Laos. Faced with such massive numbers of captive bears, the Vietnamese authorities are struggling to enforce national laws which prohibit the trade in bile or the taking of further bears from the wild. In addition, only few a facilities exist to house these confiscated bears, leaving authorities unable to take action against traders.
When saved bears first arrive at the rescue centre, they are housed in an area where they are quarantined for 45 days. This is to ensure they do not carry diseases which could be passed on to the resident bears. They will have a health check where a full examination under anesthesia is completed by the vet. A thorough examination of the abdomen is performed at this time to check the state of the organs. If the gall bladder is too damaged, it will then be removed to avoid complications at a later stage. Teeth are another problem which often needs addressing during a health check. Poor nutrition on the farms will often cause their teeth to rot so they may need extraction. Other times bears would have caused the damage themselves, biting the steel bars out of frustration and stress from being permanently locked up in a cage, or their teeth have already been removed by the farmers.
Once the animal has passed the quarantine period, he will get moved to an indoor den. Here they will be able to move around freely for the first time on a solid floor. Once moved into a den, the bear will show whether it is interested in meeting other bears. Space between the metal bars will allow sniffing and gentle play with their paws. If all signs are positive and the new bear has settled in they slowly integrate them with other bears.
From here, they will move to a larger house which has outdoor enclosures. The bear will need to get familiar with this new environment. Some take to walking on grass immediately whilst others seem more nervous about the feeling of grass under their feet and prefer to stay on the concrete, near the safety of the dens. But eventually none of the bears can resist the tasty treats placed outside by the staff and slowly their confidence grows. This is the first time most of these bears would be in the open where they can enjoy life outside of an enclosed and confined space. “This is a wonderful moment when farmed bears venture outside for the first time” says the Senior Bear Manager of Tam Dao Annemarie Weegenaar.
Food is given every day in different ways to keep the bears active. Some food is hidden, buried, or placed up high to encourage climbing. The bears are given other treats which includes scattering nuts and seeds for them to find. The staff focus heavily on enriching each bear’s life as they would have come from a very deprived environment that creates unnatural behavior. Enrichment gives the bears a chance to express their natural and wild behavior which is essential for their physical and emotional well-being.
By the end of my visit, I was humbled by the amazing work that Animal Asia Foundation do on a daily basis for these mistreated animals. I hope that their great work is continued and through support from the Vietnamese government and the international community, this awful and unnecessary practice will be banned once and for all.
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“THESE BEAUTIFUL ANIMALS NEED OUR HELP”
Photography and words Kelly Tang