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Bringing them home

Chu Chu grinned as he always did – that silly beaming smile of his that stretches from ear to ear – and the years rolled back. It was Sunday, 18th October and my first visit in many years to Panyu, southern China, but the bears hadn’t changed one jot.

Originally there were nine of them, all rescued from a bear farm in Guangdong Province. I visited this farm – only the second I’d ever visited – way back in 1993. This shocking photo was taken at the time:

After hearing the agreement from the Chinese government that the bears could be rescued, IFAW Founder Brian Davies, and Trustees Jean, Mary and Karen lost no time in agreeing to fund a beautiful sanctuary to house and keep them all safe. Boris came on as the Project Manager and Gail as the Vet, and before we knew it the sanctuary was up and running and the bears all moved in.

That was in 1995 when I was a consultant to IFAW and before Animals Asia was born. Today only five of the bears remain (Xie Sheung, Digger, Elizabeth [now nicknamed Bebe], Hong and Chu Chu) – and all just as gorgeous as they were a lifetime ago. Sadly over the years we were to lose Yat Ho, Donny, Cookie and Boris. Gone, but never forgotten.

In the time that passed, Gail and Boris joined me in setting up Animals Asia together with John and Winnie – and we went on to concentrate on the bear farming issue, rescuing hundreds of bears in Chengdu. Such was the frenetic pace that IFAW agreed to take sole charge of the Panyu bears, leaving us to concentrate even more on bear projects in both China and Vietnam.

But recently, we happily agreed with IFAW that these bears, entering their twilight years, would now benefit from more friends as their own numbers inevitably dwindled and, today, here they were joining their new family, in Chengdu.

Escorting them on the two-day journey by road was Kati Loeffler and Tan Minjung from IFAW (with Jeff and Melissa waving them off from Panyu and Jeff then flying over to join us in Chengdu for the arrival), and Boris, Jen, Rainbow, Rocky, Ou Jun, Xiang Wei Rong, Caroline and me from Animals Asia, all setting off on a non-stop 48-hour journey of 2,100km from Panyu to Chengdu.

And it was such an amazing journey with all five bears as relaxed as they could possibly be in their roomy recovery cages on the back of the truck.

Boris had set the scene by arranging the complicated logistics with IFAW, and then he, Rocky and the team made sure everything went safely and smoothly. Kati and Tan Minjung offered advice along the way, while the journey went from hour to hour without a hitch.

Hastily grabbed meals and nights sleeping rough on the back-up coach for us – and the bears, of course, number one priority and treated like kings of the road. Jen and Kati pretty much didn’t keep their eyes off the road and such was their dedication to smooth driving and avoiding the bumps, I thought that both might eventually wrestle the steering wheel from the drivers’ hands.

We stopped every couple of hours so that checks could be made and the bears fed and cleaned. Far from being stressed, they scoffed everything put in their food trays. Even the marshmallows that Jen and Caroline carefully stuffed with medication, rapidly disappeared when offered to Xie Sheung, Bebe and Chu Chu. And always, there was Rainbow with his camera in hand recording almost every minute of the trip. Here's a lovely pic of Digger, cooling her paw in her drinking trough.

At one checkpoint along the way, we were side by side with a tour coach, whose Chinese passengers saw the banners on the side of the truck and promptly smiled and gave us the thumbs up. In fact, people would often walk over – especially when we stopped for fuel – and we could see their eyes almost pop from their sockets when they saw Hong curiously peering at them through a gap in the canvas.

Finally we arrived at the sanctuary around 10.30am on Tuesday, to the waiting media and a happy crowd of Animals Asia staff welcoming the bears to their new home. Bebe was the first off the truck – happy as Larry in a position I remember her most all those years ago, sitting up on her bottom, and blinking calmly out at the crowd without a care in the world. I half expected her to cross her arms and ask what took us so long.

The bears looked great, but Kati was a little worried about Hong who appeared “flat”, and it seemed that the journey had taken its toll. Releasing him into his new den in House 10 only added to his caution, as we saw him pace nervously up and down, still ill at ease with all the new sights, sounds and smells.

But in keeping with how brave bears really are, happily this morning (Wednesday) Hong was settled enough to come to the bars of the den when he smelled the honey pot open for Xie Sheung – and contentedly slurped away when his turn came, with eyes closed in bliss.

When the doors opened into the enclosure, Digger just pipped Chu Chu to the post. But while she daintily explored the area just outside of the den, Chu Chu never stopped walking - and strode purposefully towards the swimming pool (his favourite activity according to Tan Minjung) for a quick sniff before deciding it was a bit early for a swim, and that the snacks all around would do nicely instead. Here he is sniffing out a piece of apple (and enjoying a good back scratch after his snack!)

The others followed suit and before long the enclosure had them all enjoying the day – as vet Jen said “doing pretty well given all the new things in their world”. And as Boris discovered this morning when he went to check on the bears he first met all those years ago, they love their new hanging-basket beds. Here's Boris with his old friends - all snug and cosy enjoying a lie in, knowing the door to their new enclosure is open and a host of new delights awaits them.

So now we’ve welcomed 265 bears into our little place of peace and love in Chengdu, and we’re hopeful that the Chinese government will keep its promise of more to be rescued before the end of the year.

Kati, Jeff, Lisa, Tan Minjung (pictured here) and IFAW a big thank you for the special care and attention you have lavished on these bears over the years – and for so capably and carefully helping to bring them to their final home and family, Animals Asia in Chengdu.

Please click here to read our press release about the bears and our special relationship with handsome Xie Sheung, our Animals Asia logo bear!

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