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).
Wednesday, 30 November: Well before daylight, the bear team, vet team, transport and support staff gather around the two huge trucks, with the occasional huff, snort and growl audible from within.
It's 4.30am in Binh Duong province in southern Vietnam and it's time to start the 2,000km journey north to our Moon Bear Rescue Centre, at Tam Dao National Park, where these 14 bears will finally taste freedom.
With the journey estimated to take four or five days, the team is eager to get on the road and get these bears safely home.
The small convoy — two trucks carrying seven bears each, manned by drivers and the bear team members, and a minibus carrying the vet team and support staff — sets off around 5.20am on the first leg of the journey home.
The first stop is two hours later to feed and water the bears, check who is eating and who is not and to gauge their general demeanour.
The bears are coping well overall, a little anxious but quiet and fairly settled, except Rajani who continues to jump, growl and bark, and Horatio, who is also a bit vocal — showing signs of anxiety.
Caine appears to have passed the time scooping the now seemingly endless supply of water out of his bowl onto his tummy and the floor. Helina is still a bit wary and doesn't appear interested in her food — vet nurse Caroline and the bear team will be keeping an eye on her as the trip progresses.
Although the day is heating up, the trucks remain cool inside because of a strong airflow through the open front and back of the truck-top, and thick doors to prevent them from heating up inside.
The next stop several hours later, sees the bears get their first shower — one of many on the road ahead — and how they enjoy the cooling spray, sitting up and turning around to catch it all! The floor of the truck is washed down, with food remains, shredded browse and waste dispensed with for now.
All cleaned up and ready to go again, our goal is to cover 500km each day, stopping regularly along the way to feed, water and monitor the bears, with overnight stops to rest the drivers and their precious cargo.
With good roads and clear weather, we covered over 700km on Wednesday, with stops for the bears every two hours — to rest them from the constant movement, check food and water, clean up and monitor each individual's condition. All did well throughout the day, though Dream Mischa Tebs is not showing much interest in her food.
Thursday dawns cool and clear as the bears are roused by the team to see how they got through the night, provided with fresh water and readied for the road again after the calm and quiet of the overnight stop.
Dream Mischa Tebs was given her nickname by Tuan and Công, the bear team responsible for the daily care of the bears on the road, because "she is a very miserable bear and needs to dream of nice things". She is indeed a tragic bear — with her left forepaw missing and her right forepaw crippled. Her teeth are broken and infected and probably very painful, which may be part of the reason that she is not eating well. As she still hasn't eaten much by Thursday afternoon, Caroline hand-feeds her bananas, which she happily accepts.
Caroline does a visual check of each bear and notes that several have signs of eye discharge from one or other eye, but is not over-concerned as the consistency is watery and most likely caused by conditions on the road — dust, pollution and wind — but they will be checked for any change in condition at each stop.
Stops along the way attract onlookers, curious and excited to see the bears. For Rajani this is an anxious time. She reacts angrily to any movement near her transport cage, roaring and leaping towards the cage side. But her anger is fuelled by fear and the rescue team is protective and patient.
It's a long day, with bad roads and rain slowing progress. At the last "bear stop" of the day before reaching Da Nang, everyone is buoyed to see a beautiful crescent moon above, shining down on our moon bears.
5.30am: Friday morning dawns cool and wet, with heavy rain. In miserable drizzle, the bears are checked and given fresh water, with breakfast scheduled for later after the team has crossed the Hai Van mountain pass.
This long and winding road, with an elevation of 500m, hugs the side of the mountain, with stunning valleys and ocean below, but with low cloud cover and visibility, driving rain and wind, and two huge trucks to navigate the twisting route, it's slow going to the top.
The team stops at the top as the weather intensifies and is greeted by "invisible" dogs — they can hear them bark but cannot see them, so dense is the mist and rain! As they continue again on the downward journey, the truck lights disappear in the mist but visibility improves quickly thanks to the strong wind and the descent. At the bottom, it's time for a break to feed, clean and inspect the bears.
Vet nurse Caroline starts Dream Mischa Tebs on pain medication and antibiotics, to ease the torture of her mouth and allow her to eat. The medication comes packaged in slices of banana smothered with honey, and is personally hand-delivered by Caroline — irresistible, even to this unhappy bear.
Tuan and Công work like whirlwinds in the rain — cleaning and replenishing food bowls, refreshing water bowls, hosing down the truck floors and replacing the chewed and abused browse with fresh green foliage, gathered along the way.
The next few hours bring a long, tricky journey with kilometres of rough road pock-marked with potholes. Negotiating the roughest parts is a challenging job, but our superb drivers expertly navigate the hazardous road.
At the next stop the team is anxious to see how the bears fared — and find them a bit flustered and huffy, not happy at all. Some look a bit shaken and others have a little dribble on their chins, but there are no big traumas and they are given time to settle down before the journey continues.
It's onwards to Nghe An and the last night on the road! Tonight the hotel is off the beaten track, and there is no traffic or other noise to disturb the bears' sleep on the trucks.
This group of bears is handling themselves well — a little shaken at times, a little anxious, but generally responding well. Even Rajani is less jumpy — she is still fearful but reacting a little less angrily. It's incredibly sad to see this beautiful bear cower in her cage hoping not to be noticed.
Not so fearful is Lana, a small, sweet little girl who loves watermelon and sits up to eat, holding her favourite fruit in her paws and dribbling it onto her tummy! Lana is so fond of her food that she is reluctant to allow Công to remove her tray for refill and a little tug of war ensues — each time Công pulls her tray, she pulls it back and after several tries he has to tempt her away with browse in order to win it from her!
Helina has settled down and is eating well, even looking forward to each fresh meal.
With one day's drive to reach the rescue centre, the whole team is looking forward to getting home, getting each of these, decidedly individual, bears off the trucks and into rehabilitation.
Good news to start the morning off, as Caroline reports that most of the eye problems are improving and even Dream Mischa Tebs's is now reduced to a watery consistency. She is continuing to take her medication, and is eating bananas and some softer fruits.
Big girl Nelly, who has been fairly confident and relaxed, is back eating well after only eating rice on Friday. Caroline puts it down to the bone-shaking ride on Friday which upset most of the bears in one way or another, and Nelly concurs by devouring her breakfast, seeking out her favourite pumpkin first.
Horatio has show a passion for dragon fruit and little Duffy with the bald back, tucks into all that's on offer.
Miki who was very shy and retreated as far as she could in her transport cage earlier in the week, is not so shy today and is more relaxed with people around.
The sun is out again and the end of the road is near, and the team sets off in good spirits. It's time to get these bears to where they belong and into the care of the on-site bear and vet teams, impatiently awaiting their arrival.