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Farewell our googly Chris

Just when I’d written about Chris’s new lease on life, things took a turn for the worse.

Over the weekend, Chris (also known by his Chinese name “Sang Sang”) went rapidly downhill and had bad mobility on his back legs. Any pain was well disguised and as he dragged his body to some pieces of food in the den on Saturday. You’d have thought that the front end was completely disconnected from the back.

Shuffling over for a small digestive biscuit, he curled those big, soft lips of his around my fingers and closed his eyes in complete bliss at this unexpected treat. And then he was off to have a nap. Again shuffling over toward his basket bed – remembering to pick up his hessian sack along the way – and clambering clumsily inside onto the straw.

For a good 10 minutes, he laboriously arranged the sack and straw just the way he thought it should be, before settling down for a snooze. And that’s how I want to remember him today as we say a sad farewell to this brave and beautiful boy, with the scarred tum and googly eyes, who has never been anything but gentle and forgiving since the day he arrived.

We don’t have favourites … much, and Heather (our Senior Vet) adored Chris too, and penned some words of goodbye:

Chris was a bear of very little brain, his pleasures were simple – food and a cosy straw bed to curl up in. He arrived in 2002 with a swollen belly utterly traumatised by bile extraction – large gaping wounds dripped pus and bile and no one knew if he would pull through the long and complicated surgery to excise his rotting gall bladder.

However (probably sensing that there was good grub to be found here) Chris struggled through and went on to make a complete recovery. He became best friends with Honey, a stroppy little pitbull of a bear, intolerant of all others, except for her big goofy den-mate, and enjoyed many happy years in House 3.

With his distinctive furrowed brow and “googly” eyes, Chris was instantly recognisable, but it was his gentle nature and almost comical enthusiasm for all things food-related that endeared him to the whole team. In 2007, we started Chris on anti-inflammatory medication after we noticed him becoming stiffer and less active.

Despite an initial improvement, this was the beginning of a slow decline for Chris. Over the last 18 months, Chris became a walking pharmacy of anti-inflammatory and painkilling drugs, given to alleviate his severe spinal and joint arthritis, but regardless of his hind-limb stiffness, his head remained young and bright and his nose always sniffing for the next lick of peanut butter.

Last month, we made the difficult decision to remove Chris from his group and retire him in a small den and enclosure where he could more easily access the specially designed low beds. It was definitely the right decision.

Over the last month we have observed Chris lying happily for hours in his bed chewing on browse and snuggling into straw, or burrowing into his pile of wood-shavings and sunbathing in his enclosure. Sadly his gradual decline continued and the progressive nature of his arthritis has won out.

Yesterday we made the heartbreaking decision to anaesthetise Chris one last time. Slurping happily on his favourite strawberry sauce, he barely noticed the anaesthetic injection. He was gently euthanised with the bear team and our management, education and office staff around him, his body a testament to the indomitable spirit of bile farmed bears.

His post-mortem examination revealed that his spine was so weakened by malnutrition and years of caging that his vertebrae had collapsed, his scarred liver harboured a large cyst and his thyroid gland was riddled with cancer.

Sleep well little bear. You will be missed.

The funeral was crowded – our Chinese and Western staff paying tribute to a much-loved bear who had so clearly adored his seven years of freedom and choice.

Farewell Chris from your family in Chengdu who loved and respected you to the moon – and back.

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