Virginia McKenna’s visit: Part 2

Early the next morning Virginia, Tuan, Chinh, The and I headed off to the bear farms of Phung Thoung Village near Hanoi. The first farm saw us being politely invited to drink tea by the owner, Ms Loc, before she showed us the bears. Kind as the offer was, it was of course the last thing we wanted to do and the small talk that ensued could hardly disguise the nervousness we felt in anticipation of soon meeting the caged bears.

Ms Loc told us she was 63 years of age and I couldn’t help thinking about the difference between how casually she felt about the animals she housed and exploited, and how sick we were all feeling on the other side of the coffee table.

Finally we were allowed to walk into the sheds that kept 29 moon bears in cages measuring approximately 1.5 x 2 metres. Immediately on our right, the grimy cage housing a bear with open wounds over her back legs. Could they be as a result of being jabbed with an unsterile needle as the farmers operatives anaesthetised her in preparation for bile extraction?

Another bear opposite was missing a paw from being caught illegally in the wild and many of them anxious and pacing from side to side, anticipating perhaps that these strange new people were meaning them harm.

For 10 long years they had been caged and extracted of their bile. Several had shrunk to the back of their cages, unnaturally quiet and fearful, following our every move with terrified eyes. Every so often, one would huff and lip-smack if we made a sudden move, while others weaved repetitively back and forth, nervous and stereotypic as we walked past.

A poor German shepherd-mix dog was caged too – a guard dog every bit a victim as the bears – barking nervously at the strangers in front of him. How we wished we could have taken him with us, but pointless recognising that another dog would quickly take his place.

Soon it was time to go – with a polite goodbye as we fought hard to show neutral faces to a woman hurting the bears, exploiting the law and with not an ounce of compassion for the bears in her heart.

The next farm was worse. Here in an area of town where farms housed about 350 bears, the owner apparently kept 30 caged bears in two farms. We weren’t allowed to see the other farm, but the owner, Mr Phuong, allowed us to walk around this one and observe bears in smaller cages than the last, measuring only 1m wide and 2m high.

I asked him how often he took bile from the bears and he laughed with narrowed eyes as he carefully replied, “Never, as it would be illegal to do so”. The Forestry official looked uncomfortable and shifted his gaze when we asked why then were there so many bottles of antibiotics (ampicillin) lying around? The farmer replied that they were to treat his chickens – which may have been so, but the sheer volume of these full and empty bottles suggested that the amount used was for animals far bigger than a bird. Then we saw the wire nooses and canvas ties – and knew without a shadow of a doubt that this farmer was illegally extracting bile from his terrified bears. 

One poor female bear looked so sick and depressed. Cowering in her cage, she also seemed to have sight problems with cloudy eyes that didn’t follow my hand when I moved it from side to side. She was also missing her right fore paw and I asked the farmer why she was so sick. His response was to take a metal rod and brutally poke it into her abdomen, saying that there was nothing wrong with her at all. She groaned and moved to the back of the cage and sat there hunched and miserable as the farmer told me without any embarrassment at all that he didn't know how she had lost her paw – and didn’t care.

Journalist Simon Parry was getting down to the business of asking some practical questions and was told by the farmer that he would be willing to sell his animals for US$1,000 per bear. Quickly changing his mind, the farmer then demanded US$3,000 per bear and seemed keen to negotiate their release. Tuan felt that the price would reduce to around US$2,500 but how could we barter at all, knowing that we would be starting a dangerous precedent of paying for bears in a country where bear farming was already illegal and where the farmers were allowed to keep their microchipped bears under the law. If we bought these poor creatures, we couldn't guarantee that we would be getting these same bears – particularly as he had the other farm just down the road.

And of course, with the unmicrochipped (illegal) bears languishing on other farms, our promise of taking these first must still hold true – despite the fact that the farms in Halong Bay with unmicrochipped bears were still allowed to stay open. The law is meaningless it seems.

This farm certainly didn’t comply with any regulation at all. In Vietnam, the bears must have veterinary care, there must be waste treatment, and cages must be 1.5 x 0.5 x 2m with bars 1.5cm apart from the next cage. Neither farm held bears under these conditions – not that it would have made any difference to these poor demented creatures behind the bars we saw.

This farm had a dog too. A beautiful cream-coloured dog in a barred cage, which prevented him from placing paws and body on solid ground. His claws had grown long and spindly and must have been so painful every time he tried to stand. He barked at us miserably – and Tuan promised he would send a report to the Central Forest Protection Department asking if they would confiscate the bears and allow us to have both them and the poor cream dog.

Along the road we walked – all of us struck into miserable silence, until we found another farm where the bears were kept next to the road. Here Tuan, Virginia and I gazed at bears in barren cages lying there with nothing to enrich the endless hours of their days. Not even water.

As we stood there, a bear in front of us began to pull his own tongue from his mouth – inch by inch, his tongue stretched grotesquely, and surely painfully, as we watched in horror. Just when it seemed his tongue would snap, he let go, and then began the whole miserable procedure again. A new form of stereotypic behaviour I had never seen before – and which left Virginia in tears. Arm in arm we stood silently, ashamed of our species. 

Just before leaving we pulled branches from a tree nearby and gave them to some of the bears at the front of the farm. Curiously they sniffed, then licked, and lay on their backs gently stripping the leaves from the twigs. Undoubtedly the first “natural” enrichment they had experienced in a long, long time, and the last for months or years to come.

Part 3, the final in this blog series on our Vietnam trip, soon....

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