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Witnessing the worst of humanity

When celebrity chef Simon Bryant arrived on site at our bear sanctuary in Chengdu, it was smiles all round. Simon is a fabulously popular personality in Australia and this talented chef and committed animal lover was happy to help in any way he could to benefit China’s dogs, cats and bears!

Poor Simon hardly had time to catch his breath as he stepped off the flight and walked straight into a press conference we had arranged for his arrival. It couldn’t have been more meaningful for companion animals in China, as Simon, along with chefs from Chengdu and our own on-site chefs (Li Damu, Zeng Zhiming, Deng Chengfang, Fu Kai) enthusiastically signed a pledge in front of an array of China’s print and TV media promising that they would never cook, serve or eat dogs and cats.

With a variety of our Dr Dogs and rescued dogs helping them to make the point, Simon and the local chefs happily spoke to the cameras and emphasised why humankind was so much better off with dogs and cats as friends, rather than food.

With a couple of hours spare before our flight to Guangzhou, Simon had time for a quick walk around the sanctuary to meet bears like Douglas, who ambled happily over to the fence-line to say hello.

And then it was time to take a deep breath and head off for the not-so-happy experience of visiting a live-animal market and several safari parks in southern China.

As ever, these hideous places exhibited the best and worst of humankind. The best of course was demonstrated by people like our own Chinese staff of Rainbow and Irene as they tirelessly chaperoned Simon, Dave (our Animal Welfare Director), and I to some of the worst hell-holes for animals on this earth.

Appalling safari parks and their even-more appalling animal shows, where lions, tigers, bears and elephants were beaten, whipped and spiked to perform acts so unnatural to their instincts in the wild, and where the majority of enclosures held emaciated shells of animals that had given up all hope.

Our first trip to the Guilin Tiger and Bear Park was a shocking example of how these park managers deceive the government and China. Many years ago, we exposed this park’s ghastly practice of “live-animal feeding”.

At that time, Boris (our founding member and Project Director) and I filmed juvenile tigers attacking and then biting the bodies of live piglets and young calves as the tigers were supposedly “trained” in preparation for the wild. As the audience cheered, the animals cried out pitifully in fear and pain, while slowly bleeding to death. A diesel tractor then drove into the ring, where it finally separated the tigers from their prey and shunted the crippled and dying animals outside to be slaughtered finally.

A “front” for the real practice of selling tiger bone wine, and extracting bile from the bears, this park has the horrible facade of pretending to be a place of paradise for two of China’s most beautiful endangered species.

On this return visit with Simon, we were greeted at the entrance by a sight that left us reeling. On entering the park, there standing tall and proud portraying a happy ambassador welcoming visitors to the park was a picture of our own rescued bear, Andrew.

At first I found it hard to register that our glorious three-legged moon bear, who died of liver cancer in February 2006, was now the poster boy for a park that hurt and exploited tigers and bears so terribly.

But here he was, obscenely painted onto the welcoming poster at the front gate – and no doubt turning in his grave. There are no words to describe our anger – and yes, we are definitely taking this up with the authorities concerned.

As we later chatted – just like tourists – to the salesgirl in the shop, filming every sentence too, we learned that it was easy to export bear bile and tiger bone wine to the UK (and, by default, the world) – which in fact, and not surprisingly, is illegal
under both Chinese and international law. Note: another letter to another Chinese bureau. As our “tour” moved on we saw this beautiful bear – detoothed, defenceless and depressed.

The final horrors of this park saw a performance in an outdoor arena, where petrified bears were forced to ride a motorbike on a high-wire at least 10 metres high, another bear shutting his eyes and trying to jerk his head back as the trainer held on to the rope around his muzzle and viciously punched him in the face – time and time again – when he didn’t perform on cue.

Majestic tigers – one with a huge tumour on his leg (above) – were humiliated and degraded at every opportunity. We left with heavy hearts, but promising to take this up with the authorities – and vowing to have Andrew’s picture removed.

The next day – Sunday morning – saw the live-animal market teeming with cages and pens of dogs, cats, donkeys, goats, rabbits, chickens, all miserably awaiting their fate. As ever, many of the poor dogs were wearing collars, showing that they’d either been stolen from their family’s homes, or where perhaps the owners had sold them to the market traders when they were no longer wanted.

At one point, Dave heard a loud mewing and we saw a tiny newborn kitten underneath one of the cat cages, where a mother had recently aborted her young.

As Dave broke away and caused a diversion, I quietly scooped the little mite from the ground and underneath my T-shirt. Irene realised immediately what was happening and casually passed over her handbag so that we could more easily hide the kitten and get back into our car and leave.

A quick call to Dr John at his vet clinic in Guangzhou saw him waiting there when we arrived and once again he was called to help with a life that almost certainly wouldn’t survive. Just a year ago, we had brought him two newborn kittens found on the ground of another market, but sadly they didn’t live.

Still, she was strong and, in between sleeping, had suckled on my fingers on the drive from the market, clearly with a will to survive. All we could do was leave her in John’s capable hands and keep everything crossed. We named her “Panda”, in the hope that such a proud name would spur her on.

The other safari parks we visited – the Xiongsen Bear & Tiger Mountain Village in Guilin and the Xiangjiang Safari park in Guangzhou – were ghastly too – the same acts, the same deafening music announcing the shows and the same miserable, depleted animals, beaten into submission by people who just didn’t care. And these poor animals are usually housed in stark cells of concrete and metal bars.

After seeing a particularly sad elephant show, where the trainers flourished a small white stick, we realised that a pointed spike had been inserted at the end, and was being used as negative reinforcement; the trainers were abusing the poor animals into performing as they wished. Rainbow managed to take close-up pictures and these too will be sent to the park managers as evidence of how some members of their audience will not be fooled.

At one point when the show had finished, Rainbow strode into the performance ring and asked one of the trainers to show him his “magic stick”. The trainer had long since got rid of it and professed not to know what Rainbow had meant. I couldn’t have been more proud of Rainbow for those few minutes as he stood there fearless, persistent, and making his point about how ashamed he was as a Chinese witnessing these depraved acts of abuse.

So now, finally away from the cruelty, we are currently writing up notes and sending letters to the safari parks concerned, and discussing the feasibility of a conference next year to focus on the plight of performing wild animals.

Panda didn’t make it. Dr John called the next day saying that she had passed away – our little ray of hope among the horror, whose light had faded and died.

Poor chef Simon was broken by what he’d seen – a never-ending round of horror – wave after wave of sickening, violent behaviour towards animals broken by uncaring, individuals who perhaps have become immune to the mental and physical abuse they inflict.

The final sight of a dobermann caged in a dog-breeding park saw Simon walking quietly away, head bowed – leaving dedicated people like Rainbow and Irene fighting to protect the image of a country that is tainted with the misery and bloodshed of the animals it betrays.

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