Stan and Iris in their cages on the bear farm - trapped in despair for over a decade.
Stan was clearly in pain, with metal jacket imprints on his body and bile oozing from his abdomen.
A desperate Iris reaches out of her rusting cage, in pain and despair.
On Wednesday, 6 April 2011 the Bear Management team at the Moon Bear Rescue Centre in China created a new first for the centre – the integration of two mature brown bears. After years of unfathomable pain and misery on a bile farm, these two bears have had their spirits restored and recently discovered a wonderful new friendship.
Almost a year previously, in mid-April 2010, the “Shangdong Rescue” saw 10 bears rescued from the last bear bile farm in that province and the farm closed down. Among this group were two huge brown bears, now named Stan and Iris, who had been incarcerated in rusting, barren cages next to each other for over a decade. During their time on the farm, they endured the torture of being milked for their bile and encased in brutal metal jackets with catheters permanently inserted into their abdomens.
When the doors of their prison opened that day, the rescue team was horrified at the sight of these bears who stared numbly from their cages, having long ago given up on life. Stan was clearly suffering, with bile pouring from an open wound in his abdomen. His balloon-sized hernia showed just how "expertly" his catheter had been inserted and the pus, blood and bile leaked out continuously onto the floor.
Iris had a terrible, open draining fistula (a permanent hole cut into her abdomen to access her gall bladder) and a possible hernia. It was clear from the marks on her battered body that she had been encased in a metal jacket until only a few hours before. Her teeth also needed urgent attention, with one large canine cut to the gum, full of infection and impacted with food.
Transported safely back to the rescue centre, after a four-day, 2,400km trip across country, both bears would later undergo abdominal and dental surgery, and months of carefully-monitored rehabilitation before being moved into their own separate dens.
For many months preceding integration, Stan and Iris had lived in dens adjacent to one another, rotating and sharing access to the outdoor enclosure. During this time, the Bear Management Team had monitored their interactions through the slides and all felt that they would be a good match, having observed positive interactions between the two bears.
Bear Manager James, responsible for overseeing their area, held lengthy discussions with Bear Team Leader, Ou Jun and his team and our trusty and experienced Bear Team Supervisors, Howard, Ai and Rocky about the possibility of integrating Stan and Iris. Stan especially had been demonstrating behaviour that indicated he was frustrated and not necessarily happy by regularly foot and leg biting.
A plan was agreed on and the day arrived. The team has years of experience integrating Asiatic black bears, but integrating mature brown bears presented an entirely new challenge. Fire extinguishers and hoses in position and team members strategically placed around the dens, in the event that the meeting would not go as well as the team expected, despite careful observation and assessment.
With thumping hearts the team looked on as the slide between the two bears opened and Stan and Iris met properly for the first time, after years incarcerated on the same farm and months living quietly side by side at the rescue centre. Quite quickly, everyone observing this initial meeting was grinning from ear to ear!
There was a good deal of mutual sniffing and pawing at first, followed by Stan resting his head on Iris’ back and then the playing began. The vibrations of these two mighty bears playfully tumbling around could be felt through the floor in the dens!
Throughout the day, they played and wrestled, resting at times and learning quickly to gauge the other’s mood and enthusiasm for the game. During evening feeding, they ate in separate dens but moved next to each other after the bulk of the food was done and investigated and shared what the other was eating with no aggression.
Restored to health, out in the sun but separated, it was felt that both bears would benefit from integration.
The following day they were given enclosure access. Iris immediately initiated play and would not let Stan forage or eat. He made it clear he was not interested in playing and continued to eat, then rested while Iris played, splashing around in the pool by herself. Clearly not in the mood to play, as indicated by some slight aggression until Iris got the message, Stan slept for the rest of the day while Iris happily entertained herself.
Click on the slide show below to see Stan and Iris together.
For the rest of their first week together, they integrated well, seeming to begin to understand each other better, and giving each other space when necessary. By the end of the week, no aggression was noted and the two were observed playing in the pool together.
A few months on, the pair continue to enjoy each others’ company, whether in the den or the enclosure, and Stan has not shown any foot biting behaviour since joining Iris. We can only hope that their years on a farm are now a fading memory as they enjoy their new life.