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).
Despite heavy rain and fog, Monday night and Tuesday had been without incident, with the bears doing well and coping with the journey, but Wednesday morning brought a dramatic turn of events. Overnight checks on brown bear Oliver, the last bear freed from his cage, indicated that he would need medical intervention very soon if he was to survive.
Unresponsive and not accepting food or drink, he was deteriorating rapidly and the vets were anxious to get him back to the rescue centre.
But it was a frustrating day for travel as dawn broke with the trucks already stuck for four hours in an overnight road closure. Finally on the move again, but slowly – it was still 60km to the road toll booth where the back-up had stemmed from – and two hours later the trucks were only a few kilometers further along.
Vet Heather had been concerned from her first impressions of Oliver at the bile farm on Monday morning: "I'm really worried about him, he’s probably been fed on a diet of rice, is bound to be suffering from malnutrition and most likely has severe skeletal deformation. So he’s going to be in pain".
Oliver’s health check on Monday revealed a wire protruding from an open fistula, dripping thick, pus-filled bile. An ultrasound showed a foreign body embedded in his gall bladder, and with his abdomen filled with gas it was not possible to get a clear picture of his liver and other organs. Oliver had hair so severely matted from long-term bile leakage that it was now a solid, tar-like mass that Heather had to carefully cut away from his body millimeter by millimeter.
Information received at the farm had led the team to conclude that this bear had been on a bile farm for the best part of his 30 years. Years of torture, wounding and malnutrition and yet, he still survived. Now the team just needed him to hang on a bit longer – until they could get him home and repair the savage damage draining his life away.
Jill consulted with vets Heather and Monica and vet nurses Wendy and Karli and they decided it was best to make Oliver more comfortable for this extra long journey. Heather anaesthetised him so they could administer anti-nausea and pain relieving medication intravenously.
As Heather and Monica treated Oliver in the truck, information came through that there was severe traffic congestion for more than 8km forward after the toll. The trucks and buses inched along, going nowhere, as concern for Oliver grew
Time was of the essence and the decision was made to perform emergency surgery to remove Oliver's gall bladder. His abdomen was distended and hot, indicating infection, his blood pressure and heart rate were high, so this bear had to be seen to as soon as possible. Stuck in traffic for over seven hours at that point, it would be impossible to reach the rescue centre hospital in time to save his life.
As the vet team prepared Oliver for surgery, Project Manager, Boris, and Rainbow, our Education Manager in China felt it was time to take matters into their own hands, and Rainbow raced ahead to the toll station manager and traffic police to notify them of the emergency.
Said Rainbow: “I explained that we were an international rescue group with bears on board the trucks from Weihai, heading for Chengdu and that one of the bears could die without urgent help. The police were very supportive, and right away decided to open up a special lane, block traffic coming towards us and clear the road ahead.”
Within minutes, a troop of officers was on hand, led by the Weinan Head of Traffic police, Captain Tian Wei, moving traffic across multiple lanes to give Oliver's truck free passage. Compounding the traffic chaos was road construction up ahead pushing hundreds of huge trucks into two lanes only.
With a traffic police escort, siren blaring, the truck and buses were quickly led along the unopened road, still under construction, and sped to the nearest local hospital in Shanxi Province, with a concerned Jill and vet team still on board the truck with Oliver. A call ahead to the hospital from the traffic police resulted in the hospital offering their full assistance and use of equipment as necessary.
As the truck pulled up outside the Trauma Emergency Hospital in Feng Ling Du town twenty minutes later, staff raced out with an oxygen tank to supplement our equipment, set up proper surgical-standard lighting and put their entire resources at the vet team's service. Hot water bottles were produced to help support him and keep Oliver’s temperature regular; the intravenous drip, travelling in a cool box, was warmed up; bloods taken earlier were rushed inside for comprehensive analysis and the results produced within thirty minutes.
Oliver was taken from his cage on to the floor of the truck and preparations made for his surgery. Jill and the rest of the team looked on tensely – to lose this very special boy that they had been drawn to so quickly would be devastating, when they were so close to getting him home.
Heather and Monica, Wendy and Karli worked skillfully under extreme conditions in the back of the truck, as the temperature dropped and rain poured down outside. Despite the conditions, the welcoming and curious residents of the town began to gather and before long, Oliver had a large group of supporters, fascinated by this spectacle and rooting for him to make it through. The head of the local Public Security Bureau, Mr Liu, personally oversaw security so that the well-intentioned spectators would not get too close to the open sided truck, amiably assisted by the rest of the rescue team who watched over the surgery and fetched and carried as required.
When Oliver's gall bladder was revealed to the vets they were shocked by its condition. Thickened walls, inflamed tissue and a fully-intact, double metal ring completely enveloped in the tissue that had grown around it over the years.
Jill, who has witnessed hundreds of bears undergo the same surgery and seen all types of horrific objects used to secure the illegal catheters, was shocked by this latest find: “This is an instrument of torture showing just why this poor bear had been in so much pain”
Jill snipped away at the tissue to eventually reveal the large, spiral metal disc with a wire hook, previously seen protruding from Oliver's stomach, attached.
Surgery went well and four hours later, the exhausted but satisfied vet team had Oliver stitched up, back in his cage padded with straw, and under observation. For several hours that night, vet nurse Karli and bear worker Ou Jun sat by his side in the back of the truck while the rescue convoy proceeded once more through the night.
Oliver had survived his ordeal thus far, thanks to the skill of the vet team, the ingenuity and dedication of our Chengdu staff in rallying local support and the help from the obliging and professional hospital staff, led by the Hospital Head, Mr Chang Linfeng.
Jill and the rescue team left Feng Ling Du town with hearts lighter than when they had reached it.