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Life-saving surgery – on the back of a truck

Wednesday, 21st April
A rainy and very cold day. Since early morning, the traffic had hardly moved at all – our luck to be caught up in road works that necessitated all of the lanes being closed and then re-opened every few metres along the way.

In a 12-hour period, we had travelled just a few miles and Boris, our rescue planner, told us to expect another day at least to be added on to our trip. Anne and Jude from Australia made us laugh when they said that if this had been in Oz, blood would have been spilled by now, after hours of frustrated road rage. But here the attitude was patient and calm, with opportunist entrepreneurs popping up seemingly out of nowhere, weaving their way through the traffic, and selling hot water and pot noodles to hungry and thirsty drivers who were waiting for the road to clear.

Olive was worse. By 11am she was clearly in terrible discomfort – panting and foaming at the mouth, eyes wide and worried. Here she is on the farm and on the road:

We were certain that, before we'd arrived at the farm, the farmers had wrenched the catheters from the bears’ abdomens, causing goodness knows what pain and damage inside. Heather decided to anaesthetise Olive and have another look with the ultrasound machine to determine whether something was obviously wrong. A full surgical/medical and "crash" kit had been loaded and the bear was now anaesthetised in her cage. 

Once a sleeping Olive was lying on her back, Heather felt her abdomen, which was unusually warm and dripping with bile through the fistula cut into her gall bladder. A metal wire also poked crudely through the hole. For now, sleeping gently, she was no longer in pain – but how many weeks, months, years on the farm had she suffered?

At one point, I heard Heather say that our girl was a boy – his true sex understandably missed amongst the chaos of the initial health-checks as we worked into the dark. And so Olive quickly became Oliver. Vet Monica later explained that this boy's testicles had not dropped But the smile on our faces didn't last long as pus began seeping from Oliver's fistula and his abdomen remained lumpy and hot.

A decision was made to get this bear to the nearest hospital so that we could ask them for an oxygen tank in order for Heather and Monica to perform what could now be life-saving surgery. Within seconds, Rainbow, our China PR manager, had contacted the local police for help and a whole new amazing episode to this story unfolded as the police cars arrived with sirens wailing, helping us out of the traffic jam and on to the hospital in the nearest town.

Shanxi was Boris’s family’s home province – perhaps in itself a good omen, and one that saw the head of the hospital and his team pulling out all stops to help us now.

As we arrived outside the hospital, the doctors were waiting at the entrance with the oxygen cylinder – along with half of the hospital staff and a growing number of onlookers from the street.

The Public Security Bureau and Traffic Police were also superbly kind and helpful, controlling the crowd and enthusiastically offering any help and resources they could. Rainbow and Sailing patiently explained to the crowd why we there, while Oliver slept on, his body surrounded by hot water bottles, and warm woollen mittens, knitted by our kind supporters, on all four paws. 

Four hours later, Heather and Monica had the gall bladder out. Almost immediately, Oliver's heart rate and blood pressure dropped from dangerously high levels and, even in sleep, he was a much happier bear. Heather asked if I'd like to cut inside this thickened and compromised organ. After about 40 minutes of hacking through unusually tough flesh which, over the years, had slowly tried to wall off this foreign object and had stuck to it like glue, there was the instrument of torture.

A large spiral metal disc with a hole through the middle where a catheter had once been fed through, before exiting out of the abdomen. A metal wire that presumably had been used to pin the disc to the gall bladder – with the sum total of this instrument of torture showing just why this poor bear had been in so much pain. 

The local TV station arrived to hear Rainbow and Sailing talk about this and about the whole practice of bear farming, and we were then greeted by the Head of the Hospital’s mother (in her wheelchair) who said she was delighted to help. We asked the crowd if they would ever buy bear bile now, and were met with a resounding "No".

By 7.30pm, after we'd thanked everyone profusely for their caring and help, Oliver was waking up in his cage and doing so much better than hours before. As a 30-year-old bear, he has virtually nothing on his side in terms of capacity to heal, but we are all keeping fingers and toes tightly crossed, hoping for even just a few weeks in a garden which would give this poor creature at least some chance to behave like a bear. For the second night running, I think a few quiet prayers were said by the team.

Poor Boris was now dealing with another headache – one of our three hired bear trucks had just broken down. Before he said anything, we knew that this too meant hours of delay and returned to our buses to catch up on emails and sleep, and where Sailing would once again bring hot vegetable buns to keep everyone warm and well fed in the night.

To read more about these brave bears and the rescue, and to see film footage and more photos, please click here.

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