years ago this April, Jill Robinson first walked onto a bear bile farm. On that day in April 1993, Jill could have walked away, but she chose to act and do what she could. Today, you also have a choice. If everyone reading this donated just US$20, it would pay for the care of over 150 bears at our China sanctuary for a full year. Please help us celebrate 20 years of progress. Donate US$20 today (or whatever you can afford).
On Tuesday, 29 November 2011, our Vietnam team rescued 14 bears from a bear farm in Bihn Duong province in southern Vietnam, and began the gruelling four-day, 2,000km-plus trip back to our Moon Bear Rescue Centre in Tam Dao National Park in the north.
This was an exciting and unique rescue for Animals Asia, where the bears' owner, Mr Nguyen Ngoc Tien, contacted us to surrender his bears voluntarily, turning his back on bear farming, and requesting we take the bears into our care. Mr Nguyen had read about Animals Asia and seen our work on TV, and with a conscience troubled by his involvement in the cruel bear bile business, he made the decision to end the misery for his 14 bears, who had been trapped on the farm for at least eight years.
Over a period of weeks, Vietnam Director Tuan Bendixsen met with Mr Nguyen and liaised with the local Binh Duong Forest Protection Department (FPD) to arrange the official transfer of the bears into Animals Asia's care.
The FPD was keen to support the handover and insisted on supervising the anaesthetising and transfer of the bears. Officials would be on hand to ensure all went smoothly and to check the bears' identity through their microchips.
Tuesday, 29 November: Tuan, vet Kirsty and vet nurse Caroline, bear team members Tuan BW and Công and External Affairs Officer, Dr The, arrive at the farm shortly before 8am.
A discreet entrance leads to a quiet, well-kept yard, conveying a false sense of serenity. Behind are the sheds where the bears have endured being drained of their bile for years on end.
There are three large sheds with rows of cages, aged and rusty, holding bears of all shapes and sizes, with wet concrete floors underneath. The first bear inside is huge — grossly overweight and missing one of her forepaws, usually a sign of being trapped by a snare in the wild.
As the rescue team walks through the sheds, up and down between rows of cages, shadows flit across faces as it quickly becomes clear that many of the bears marked for rescue may have suffered the same fate — five out of 14 have forepaws missing, presumed snared.
Missing forepaws, usually associated with a bear being snared in the wild.
There are a total of 54 bears here, lined up side by side — some are anxious and angry, some appear to have given up, with empty eyes and little interest in the activity around them. The bears singled out for surrender are Mr Nguyen's share of the larger bear farm business, and while he is intent on persuading his partners to give up their bears too, only these 14 will be leaving this place today. The rescue is tainted with sadness for the bears left behind.
Said Kirsty, "It's really hard to look into the bears' eyes and know we will leave them behind. We hope they won't be in cages forever."
The original plan had been to carry the bears out from one farm entrance, across a purpose-built bridge over a creek and into the transport cages for swift transfer to the rescue trucks. But the water level of the creek has risen overnight and new plans have to be made quickly.
The trucks are directed to another entrance, with access to the farm further away, meaning that the bears will need to be transferred to the transport cages on site, then hauled up a narrow lane-way to reach the trucks.
Preparing for transfer
The first bear — the big female in the first cage, now nicknamed "Nelly" — is anaesthetised by blow dart under the authority of the FPD, and the rescue is on.
With three bears anaesthetised at the same time, the rescue moves quickly. Each bear is taken from his or her cage, loaded onto a trolley and moved quickly to the back gate, where Kirsty and Caroline wait to receive them.
With little time to spare because of the light anaesthetic, each bear receives a quick once-over — bloods are taken, eyes, teeth and feet checked and a visual exam for physical abnormalities given before he or she is moved quickly into Animals Asia's transport cages.
The routine continues with the bear workers and vet team working flat out, lifting, transporting, checking and transferring bears — in and out of the bear shed, back and forth through the yard non-stop — until the last bear is resting peacefully in her transport cage.
Bear transfer team
The anaesthetising, removal from cages and transfer of the bears from the farm was the sole responsibility of the Forest Protection Department (FPD). The bears were officially handed into Animals Asia's care when they were delivered to our vet team at the farm gates.
It's time to wrap the rescue up on-site and move the bears on to the next step in their journey to a new life.
One final thing remains to be done — a short presentation to Mr Nguyen in appreciation of his action. This small change by one individual will prove a massive change for 14 bears — giving them a second chance to live life with joy and spirit, free of pain and fear for the rest of their lives.