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 prepares rescued bear Lizzie, for a routine health check
Comfortably warm in her bear mittens, Lizzie gets her ultrasound from Monica.
As I look at my calendar, I can hardly believe I have been here in China for almost two months. In some ways it feels as if I have only just arrived and yet in other ways I struggle to imagine how exactly so many experiences have fit into such a short time frame.
I arrived late on a Friday night in January and awoke on a Saturday morning to look out my window and see moon bears, many, many beautiful black moon bears foraging around their enclosures, play-wrestling with one another, rolling around in straw-filled digging pits, climbing tall wooden structures, even swinging on bamboo swings! It felt so surreal to actually be here and truthfully, it often still feels surreal as I ride around the center on my Animals Asia issued bicycle to check on bears. As I ride from one bear house to another during rounds, and I glance over to catch glimpses of bears splashing around their pools or rolling over and under one another in a playful wrestle, their big, round, cute bottoms in the air, I think to myself, “I can’t believe I am really here, watching and admiring and caring for these special, special bears.”
This is a very special place indeed and I remain truly amazed and inspired by all that Jill Robinson has accomplished.
During my first week I was struggling to figure out which Bear House was located where, how do I get from one area of the center to another? How do I remember all the workers at each house? How do I pronounce all their Chinese names properly? What are the schedules and protocols and routines? Heather, the Senior Veterinarian and Veterinary Director, along with the three vet nurses and the three bear managers (who comprise the western staff population), were instrumental in providing me with tours, pointers, and loads of documents to read through, and “new vet induction” information to help me get familiar with my new role as Resident Veterinary Surgeon (and have remained ever patient throughout this steep learning curve of mine).
During my second week, Heather taught me how to use a blowdart and a jabstick. The team also performed several health checks which allowed me to observe and assist and familiarize myself with the process. Health checks involve putting a moon bear under general anesthesia to allow the veterinary team to perform full physical exams, including collecting blood for biochemistry and hematology, urine if possible, checking eyes, teeth, joints, as well as performing abdominal ultrasounds and x-rays and any other necessary procedures or surgeries that are indicated.
During my third week, I was to use my newly honed jabsticking skills to perform my first moon bear health checks as well as blowdarting to administer antibiotics to a non-compliant bear who refused to take her oral medication. The first time I blowdarted a bear, I recall sneaking up behind the sleeping bear, blowdart in hand, heart pounding, and as the bear stirred, I stopped dead in my tracks and Heather stood behind me, nudging me forward, encouraging me to do what I have to do, and I darted her successfully with the first dart of antibiotics and Heather followed with the second dart. That was the first of several darting experiences involving that one bear. In addition to that experience, my first three health checks ended up requiring canine teeth extractions as well as an enucleation (eye removal surgery) which Heather kindly and patiently guided me through. All procedures were successful and all three bears recovered well.
The next several weeks continued to remain unpredictable and full of surprises, not all of which were good or happy. I witnessed my first euthanasia of a bear experiencing significant head pain due to a cancerous nasal tumor. It was truly heartbreaking and yet completely moving to witness the team of local and western staff, including bear workers, administration, and translators who gathered around Blanca at the time of her passing and then gathered at her burial to read poems and bestow gifts of flowers and dried fruit treats to be buried with her. Little did I know that this was the first of many more euthanasias that I was to experience and even perform in the coming weeks. To date, we have lost five bears and one macaque in the short time that I have been here.
Despite the tragic losses, the entire team of veterinary staff, bear managers, translators, bear team supervisors, bear workers, horticulture staff, administration,…; everybody comes together to mourn the loss of each loved bear. Through the tears, we gaze upon the surrounding beautiful, playful moon bears who remind us to smile and to remain grateful for the opportunity to continue caring for the fortunate bears who are here at the sanctuary and to continue to fight for the thousands awaiting to be rescued. I remain grateful for the opportunity to be here, to continue to climb the steep learning curve and to work side by side with such compassionate, talented, and dedicated people spanning multiple nationalities, multiple vocations, and multiple backgrounds.