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Another brutal farm, another province

Monday, April 19th – Shandong Province 
As ever on these disgusting farms, we smelt the bears before we saw them. The door creaked open and 10 pairs of eyes blinked at us out of their cages in the gloomy half light. It was only about 9 o'clock in the morning, but a grey smog hung in the air and the farm seemed all the more depressing for it. Rainbow told us that the red and gold sign above the door proudly announced "peace in four seasons" – which is ironic given that it has been anything but peaceful for the victims inside. 

The bear facing us now was huge – brown and monstrous with burnt orange eyes taking in the sight and smell of new visitors close to his cage. Turning sideways, he immediately showed us what we weren’t supposed to notice – the perfect indentation of a “full metal jacket” around his neck and abdomen with marks from the canvas straps that had held the iron box in place around his abdomen for the previous 10-15 years. 

Here, inside the box, a dirty pus-infused latex catheter had snaked into his gall bladder ready to siphon off his bile. The jackets and catheters had been removed only hours before and casually flung into an empty cage at the end. More jackets, symbols of an industry of torture, lay inside a small, dark workroom that spewed them out on demand. 

The bear's balloon-sized hernia showed just how "expertly" the catheter had been inserted and the pus, blood and bile leaked out continuously onto the floor. This bear was also wisely termed as "unpredictable", having killed a keeper during his previous confinement at a zoo many years before. But all we saw were the sad eyes of an animal that we had hurt and failed as a species – a broken and deeply unhappy bear. 

There, in the next cage, a bear who looked like a black/brown hybrid with a face similar to beautiful “Emma” who also came to us after years in a brutal jacket, dripped a steady stream of bile from the fleshy red hole in her abdomen. One more brown bear lay on her back in the cage at the far end – and straight away we noticed something strange about the way she was lying and about her body in general. A majestic brown bear face, but squat limbs – reminding us of Franzi and her dwarfism related to her years in a tiny cage. By the farmers’ own admission, this bear was 30 years old and I was looking at a creature that had all but given up. All bears receive a "temporary" name until we are reasonably hopeful that they will live and can be named by kind sponsors. For now, vet nurse Karli called this poor bear “Olive”. 

Just a few cages down, another brown bear – much smaller this time, panted in distress – her body awkwardly crouching and her face flinching every time her stomach touched the bars on the floor of her cage. She too was suffering from a hernia – as were some of the others – and we knew that the hours of surgery and rehabilitation by the vet and bear teams on return would be long. Supposing, that is, that all the bears made it safely back without succumbing to their terrible wounds. Vet nurses Wendy and Karli called her “Kylie”. 

There was no time for second guessing the problems facing the bears – our time was tight and we had until nightfall to anaesthetise all 10, give them a quick health-check and transfer them to roomy straw-lined transport cages where they would then be loaded onto the trucks in order to begin the long journey back to Chengdu. 

Vets Heather and Monica divided into two teams with Wendy and Karli helping to perform simultaneous health-checks on two bears, and members of our bear team, as well as China, Hong Kong and overseas office staff eagerly volunteering to help. Over the next few hours, the team’s professionalism kicked in, with everyone focused as the bears needed us to be. There was no time to feel sorry for the pain and discomfort the bears must feel, no luxury of a teary moment to reflect their cage imprisonment for 10 to 15 years, no time for anything except to release them from their prisons and get these bears "home". 




Thankfully, each anaesthetised and gently sleeping bear that was carried out on the tarpaulin by our amazing "boys" (our bear team, led by Supervisor Howard comprising Ai, Zhong Yu Yun, Erdi Ribo, Ou Jun and Mao Si Jiang) was blissfully unaware of the cries of alarm as we turned them over, abdomen up, one by one. 

Scar tissue showing evidence of multiple surgeries – perhaps to convert from one form of gall bladder "surgery" to another – or simply to re-implanting an agonising catheter that had been pulled out by the victim when the pain became too much to stand. 

Obscenely long claws that had grown crudely around and pierced paw pads because the only thing they had ever scratched in over a decade was their own bodies, rather than the trees and soil of a forest where they should have been. Gaping abdominal holes with pieces of wire poking out, or spewing with flesh and pus. Hernias, lumpy and mottled abdomens, nothing like a soft bear tum should feel..... and so the list went on and on and on. 

By 9pm Olive, the brown bear with her stunning chestnut-brown head, but dwarf-like legs, was tucked snugly up in a bed of straw and waking slowly into consciousness, ready for her new cage to be fork-lifted onto the last of three trucks. With wire protruding from a stinking abdominal hole, infected teeth that had been crudely cut back to gum level, she had been an unusually "quiet and unresponsive" bear on the farm. We were still worried about her – praying she'd make it through. 

Our final tally saw six moon bears, three brown bears and one who could be a brown or a black/brown hybrid (following the farmers assertions that he had two "mixed-breed" bears), and now with names Rustin, Kylie, Erdi, Nica, Ping Guo (Apple), Monkey, Rocky, Astrid, Olive and Baxter (pictured here with his scarred forehead from years of frustrated bar-rubbing).

That night, we gratefully ate warm and filling egg and spinach dumplings kindly brought in by Sailing, our attentive "Money Girl" – who looked after the media and any cash being spent on the road. As we ate, there in the night sky was a waxing yellow crescent moon. Howard guessed what I was thinking – and softly said "Anderloo". It was nice to think of our beloved first rescued bear from October 2000, since sadly departed – a good omen for a safe journey of 2,400 kilometres by road, with 10 bears rescued from hell. 

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