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).
Monica scrubs in to assist with emergency surgery on the back of a rescue truck.
As I celebrate the first anniversary of my arrival at Animals Asia’s Moon Bear Rescue Center in Chengdu, I cannot help but reflect upon the amazingly full and rich experiences of this past year and remain grateful for every single moment.
I recall the first time I had to blow-dart medications into a bear named Egmont. Fortunately Egmont was fast asleep at the very front of the den, so it was an easy shot, but I still patted myself on the back for this little accomplishment. A few weeks later, however, this same bear was sleeping outside in an enclosure, refusing to return to the dens to take her medications. Our only option was to dart her and the only access point was from the top of an enclosure wall, darting her from above. As I braced myself for the task, members of our maintenance team carried over an enormously tall bamboo ladder. My heart rate picked up a notch as Anna, one of our bear managers at the time, asked if I was scared of heights. “No,” I fibbed, as I climbed the 15+ foot tall bamboo ladder, holding on for dear life as I balanced myself, blowpipe and dart in hand, peering over and down onto a sleeping bear. I steadied myself, loaded the medicated and pressurized dart into the blowpipe, took aim and successfully darted the unsuspecting bear with her much needed medications. Feeling guilty for startling poor Egmont, I watched her retreat to the safety of the dens, at which point the team kept her inside to keep a close eye on her and coax her into taking her medicated shakes.
Then there was my first trip tagging along with Heather (our former Veterinary Director) and Caroline Nelson (our former vet nurse who now works at our Vietnam Bear Rescue Center) to the local army hospital, taking an anesthetized bear for a CT scan. I learned that it is near impossible to consistently monitor a lingual (tongue) pulse during a very bumpy ride on the back of a truck while you are reaching your hand into a transport cage checking on an anesthetized bear! I learned that when we arrive at the hospital we have to be prepared to perform crowd control as there will inevitably be a swarm of onlookers who simply want to get as close as possible to the rare sight of a live moon bear, asleep on a tarp, accompanied by a whole team of Animals Asia staff, being carried through the hospital with a slight sense of urgency to proceed for a CT scan. Our local staff take the opportunity to educate the curious crowd as we wait for the elevator, to briefly explain where our bears come from, how they get sick and why we need to scan this particular bear. Fortunately the actual CT scan only takes a few short moments. It is the traffic to and from the hospital that remains unpredictable.
Since this first eye-opening experience, I have been responsible for taking a number of other bears for CT scans and spending nearly two hours stuck in traffic is not a pleasant experience. However, we remain truly grateful for the continued support and assistance from this facility for granting us access to their CT scanner as we have been able to diagnose and/or rule out various conditions, particularly nasal tumors or heart conditions which help us greatly in making decisions about how to best medically manage some of our bears.
Then there was the life-changing rescue of 10 bears from a bile farm in Shandong Province. This was my first visit to a bear bile farm. This was also my first time assisting with an emergency choleycystectomy (gallbladder removal surgery) on a bear on the back of a truck. I will never forget the overwhelming and indescribable emotions witnessing these rescued bears stepping out of a cage for the very first time, into their very own dens. For the first time in years, after their unimaginably cruel treatment on farms,
Monica performing coleycystectomy surgery - a complicated surgery that can last hours.
after arriving at our center and completing all their surgical and dental procedures, these bears place their paws on solid ground and can walk around and explore new space and the new scents their caregivers have provided just for them. As if this isn’t enough, an even more thrilling experience is to witness these same bears being introduced to the great outdoors for the first time – their very first chance to feel grass under their paws again, to be able to roam around an enclosure and follow the scents of hidden treats that the wonderful bear workers prepare and hide for them. Having the opportunity to observe these bears be able to express some of their natural foraging behaviors and begin to act like a bear again creates an indescribable feeling that moves me more than words can express.
Then there was my first trip to Vietnam. During this past summer the veterinary team at our Vietnam Bear Rescue Center in the beautiful Tam Dao National Park, requested one of the veterinarians from our China Bear Rescue Center fly over to help perform cholecystectomy (gallbladder removal) surgeries on a number of their bears. As you might already know, all of our newly rescued bears undergo surgery to remove their damaged gallbladders from the years of traumatic extraction on the bear bile farms. While the bile extraction methods differ in Vietnam compared to what we see here in China, there is still an awful lot of trauma to the bears’ gallbladders and abdomens. Therefore, most bears in Vietnam need to undergo this surgery to remove their inflamed and damaged gallbladders.
I finally was able to meet Kirsty Officer, the Senior Veterinarian at VBRC and reunite with Caroline Nelson, the veterinary nurse at VBRC, who used to work here in China when I first arrived. When they perform health checks, Caroline monitors anesthesia while Kirsty performs the health checks. You can imagine, then, for any large/major procedures, such as choleycystectomies, Kirsty and Caz require a third person to assist and scrub in for surgery. Hence, the request to send one of our staff from China to help. I was fortunate enough to be sent over. Our goal was to perform 9 surgeries during my 10 day visit. This may not sound like much, but choleycystectomy surgeries are unpredictable procedures in that you never know what you will find once you open up the bear’s abdomen. We may find an awful mess of inflamed tissue that needs to be dissected and this can take hours. Our longest choley surgery in China took nearly 12 hours. Others can take as long as 8 or 9 hours. These surgeries can therefore be long and grueling and frustrating and backbreaking. So, we were bracing ourselves for 9 straight days of intensity.
Our first two choleys took about 9 hours each. The next two only took about 5 hours each day. We decided to give our bodies a break for one day and then resumed. The next two surgeries only took a few hours, which was a welcome relief. And the final surgery took about 5 hours again. The Vietnam Bear Rescue Center
Monica and Vet Nurse Karli at the rescue of ten bears from Shandong Province.
is very different from our China Bear Rescue Center and it was a wonderful opportunity, no matter how brief, to see my first sun bear, and quietly observe two very playful, mischievous moon bear cubs monkeying around. I also experienced a torrential downpour and had to dodge the hundred of frogs that came out to play that night!
In August, I was fortunate enough to attend and present a talk at a conference of the China Association of Zoological Gardens about Redefining Veterinary Roles in Captive Animal Settings. Our focus was to emphasize the 5 Freedoms of Animal Welfare and introduce concepts of preventative medicine. This included an emphasis on minimizing stress of captive animals by addressing their physical as well as social and mental needs through promoting the expression of natural behaviors through environmental enrichment and how these concepts all affect physical well being.
The following month we welcomed another visit from Claudia Hartley and David Donaldson, two veterinary ophthalmology specialists and their veterinary nurse Kerry Hall, from the Animal Health Trust in the UK. They so generously donated their time and expertise to performing numerous ophthalmic exams and surgeries on a number of our bears in need of their care. While we typically perform three health checks a week, during their two week stay, we performed a record 32 health checks. This meant we were performing up to 5 health checks a day, and often two bears were anesthetized simultaneously, which meant that Claudia and David were often running from one room to the next to perform their comprehensive diagnostics and surgeries and our veterinary staff and bear workers were all working tremendously hard to coordinate the order of procedures and movements of bears throughout each day. The bears did magnificently.
In a not-so-small nutshell, this past year has been full of extraordinary experiences and as winter is in full swing, I have to remind myself that yes, indeed, we have entered into the new year of 2011, and the Chinese Year of the Rabbit.
As I look out my window and see snow frosting the grounds of our sanctuary, I wish everyone and every bear and every creature, a promising 2011 with wishes for peace, safety and happiness.