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Goodbye Assisi, our gentle giant

There's never a right time to hear bad news, but landing at Heathrow Airport this morning and hearing a voice mail from Heather that Assisi had passed away was the last thing I wanted to hear.

I called her back and felt numb as she recounted how suddenly he had gone. This was to be such an exciting week as well, because he and our gorgeous Rupert were being carefully integrated together after we lost Rupert’s soul mate, Franzi, a few weeks ago. 

Not that Rupert was grieving, but we felt that without Franzi by his side as she had been for several years, he may at least be feeling lost. A brain-damaged bear, and one who didn’t care for heavy play or chasing around, we were sure that he and Assisi – with his known heart problem and gentle demeanor – would make perfect buddies in our special-care area. 

And so it was on Tuesday when the integration began and they seemed happy and content in each other’s company – even engaging in gentle play, which we hadn’t seen in Rupert for years. I was pea-green not to be there, but needed to be in Hong Kong before leaving for the UK for a week and had to be content hearing about the integration from Heather, Charlie and the weekly report.

The whole team is in shock – his death was so sudden – there he was one minute playing with his new best friend Rupert and the next he was gone. 

His kind sponsors at the Auckland SPCA in New Zealand had happily agreed to take responsibility for this bear, knowing that he was on borrowed time, but sharing our deep love and respect for a happy, contented soul who walked the kingdom of his new days in wonder at every step. 

Poor Assisi arrived from a farm where he'd been so neglected that his claws had grown so long they'd curled around and cut cruelly into his paw pads. (See the photos below in Heather's report) Sadly, this was just one of his health problems.

When I called their Executive Director, Bob Kerridge, to break the news he sadly spoke of Assisi’s “great adventure” in his short life with us and indeed it was. 

In Bob’s words: “When our bear came to us we knew he had problems inherited from his past, and we knew that his big heart may not be able to beat forever. 

We rejoiced when he was rescued, and we were with him as he discovered his new found freedoms – that huge tongue that licked the honey from the bars of his cage, his meeting with humans who shared their love with him, the discovery of the sunlight on his back, his first step into the outside world and eventually the grass under his feet, and finally the friendship with other bears in his enclosure. On his final day he learned to play for the first time in his life, and having had that joyful experience he quietly passed into the arms of the one who will care for him in eternity ... St Francis of Assisi, after whom he was named. 

Although my heart is heavy at his loss I rejoice in that he had those few months of happiness, and that we helped to make that a reality for him." 

The memories came flooding back for me too. Assisi was a big boof of a bear with a perfect ursine character – curious, friendly and contented from the start. The straw he always favoured – a legacy of his time in our recovery cage when he pulled each strand from the pile on top, piece by laborious piece, until he was happy with his perfectly built nest. No wonder he earned the nickname “Hamster” for his pains. 

And literally my last glimpse of this magnificent bear was just a few days ago, watching him from my bedroom window as he lay out in the garden. It was early in the morning and he had made a bed of his much-loved straw, and here he slept – snug, warm and contented underneath the winter sun.

Our Veterinary Director Heather just sent these beautiful words from Chengdu (see below). RIP brave Assisi from your family who loved you to the moon – and back. 

Rescued bear number 258 Assisi was special from the start – a gorgeous lemony crescent and huge ears nipped off at the tips – he was heartbreakingly handsome. Arriving in Feb 2009, trapped in a tiny cage, this young male bear's own claws had grown into his footpads, he was thin and his fistula horribly infected.

Quickly prioritised for surgery, Assisi's first real anaesthetic was a difficult experience. With respiratory rate and blood pressure well outside of normal limits, we knew that something was amiss. First X-rays and then a CT scan confirmed our fears – his aorta, the large strong vessel responsible for carrying blood from his heart to the rest of his vital organs was bulging dangerously – an aortic aneurysm was the likeliest cause. 

After much deliberation regarding future prognosis we decided to give Assisi a shot – three surgeries were performed simultaneously to repair his ravaged body, and with his blood pressure now under control, he recovered smoothly. 

As time passed, our gorgeous Assisi grew to a strapping 164kg and moved into a den in our special-care area, where he was able to meet some of our other special bears Rupert, Franzi and Snoopy through the den bars, snooze in a hammock and feel the grass under his feet. When our leading lady, Franzi, was gently euthanised last month, we developed a plan to introduce Rupert to Assisi – two big gentle giants together – and earlier this week that plan was implemented. 

But sadly this morning, the unthinkable happened; after spending the past day and night denned together, Rupert and Assisi were playing in their den, waiting while the bear workers prepared their enclosure for them to forage and explore for enrichment, when suddenly Assisi collapsed. Immediately the vet team was called, and within minutes the bear workers had separated Assisi from Rupert and the vet team were beginning CPR, but sadly it was unsuccessful. 

The post-mortem examination confirmed our suspicions – Assisi's aneurysm had ruptured causing massive internal bleeding and an almost instantaneous death. Our only consolation is that at least this beautiful boy had the opportunity to feel the grass under his feet and to wrestle with another. Sleep well little bear.

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