Virginia McKenna's visit: Part 3

The end of Virginia’s journey in Vietnam saw her spending the day with our vet team as Kirsty and Caroline spent hours in the surgery removing both upper canines, which were badly broken, exposing the pulp, from a bear called Halong. Virginia was absolutely mesmerised with the procedure and gently held Halong’s paw as Caroline monitored the anaesthetic, and Kirsty concentrated on removing his poor damaged teeth. 




That night our Vietnam team said a sad goodbye to Bear Manager Charlie, who is starting a new journey in Australia (safe travels and wishing you a happy new life Charliebrown!) before Virginia and I returned to Hong Kong the next morning. Here’s the Vietnam team saying goodbye (with Virginia and my lovely friends Jane and Molly!) Farewell Charlie.

Off the flight, a quick shower, and a taxi back into town, and Virginia was happily joining our “Busking for the Bears” event at La Baita (a bar and restaurant owned by generous Hong Kong supporters Gina and John Walker) early that evening. Edwina and our fabulous Hong Kong team had pulled out all stops to make this a truly storming event – with the girls glamming up, manning the merchandise stalls, and selling raffle tickets etc, and our own Stuart joining the busking and rocking for Hong Kong and the bears! It was super to meet up again with old friends, meet new supporters and enjoy an evening where all the profits went to the bears. Virginia and I had a wonderful night and flopped into bed exhausted. 



The next morning, Virginia was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed in our office meeting the whole team, where she talked about our journey to Vietnam with mixed emotions – and special sadness when she reached the part about the poor farmed bear maniacally pulling out his tongue. I looked around as she talked and saw virtually our whole staff wiping tears from their eyes as well. Today, I know that we may never have experienced that special moment with our truly beautiful Patron if it hadn’t been for her urging me to “just do it” all those years ago in 1998 when I asked for her thoughts about starting a foundation called Animals Asia. 

We were thrilled to see journalist Simon Parry's story and photos on Virginia's Vietnam visit featured prominently in the "China Daily". You can see this great piece here.

Virginia is the most remarkable woman I have ever known and, despite the ups and downs of the years, I have never regretted the decision for a single second. 

As many of you know, Virginia is also an accomplished writer – and she wrote these so-perfect lines in memory of her trip – and one very special bear. Soon you will be able to hear Virginia reciting the poem on the Born Free website. For now, you can read her beautiful words here and below. 

The Darkest Day

I made this journey aware 
Of what I would find. Would see. 
I thought I was prepared. 
But nothing can. No film. No words. 
Nor these few lines of mine 
Can wrench your heart and haunt your mind 
As seeing it yourself. Feeling it yourself. 

No words can really tell you. 
Should I say torment? 
Cruelty? Despair? Hell on earth? 
Shall I say prison? Torture? 
Nightmare? Madhouse? 
Nothing screams out the obscenity 
Of those barbaric traps. 
Yes. Traps of bars – above, 
Beside, beneath, no floor 
On which to rest those 
Rotting, yellowed feet. 
The feet of bears who carry 
Still the precious moons emblazoned 
On their night-dark chests. 

That moon is all they have. 
There is no sun to lighten 
That grim shed, no trees 
To soothe the eye, no wind 
To stir their fur, no hope 
Of kinder days. And why? 
It is the bile. Of course, it is the bile. 
Extracted, traded, packaged 
And sold in pretty phials 
For “mankind’s” benefit. No kindness here. 

Some bears are mad. I know 
The signs too well. They sway and rock 
And twist. Seeking oblivion. 
Even for a minute. Even for a moment. 

And then, oh God, this bear I saw. 
A huge great glorious beast 
Stretched out across the bars. 
His back legs up against the side, 
His two front legs reached high, 
As if to heaven, stretched high and still 
Until, suddenly, a paw dropped down 
And grabbed his slavering tongue, 
And pulled and pulled it out 
And out again until I thought 
It surely would snap free. 
But no, the paw jerked up 
Once more – and on and on again. 

These dark satanic sheds 
Are known as farms. Death Row 
I say. Outside the owners offer tea. 
I want to put them in a cage 
And let them cry. In vain 

Not all these innocent creatures 
Will find sanctuary. There are thousands. 
Only a few will walk on grass, 
Climb trees, feel sun and wind. Be loved. 

And, as I stood, aghast, the eye 
Of one sweet bear looked into mine. 
Unflinching. Enduring. Stoic. 
Yes, that is the word I seek. 
I heard it many times. The stoicism 
Of these great animals. And, miraculously, 
The rescued ones appear to feel 
No malice, bear no grudge, as if 
They sense the kindness shown 
The affection given. 

In all the years I have watched 
Imprisoned animals – some neglected, 
Some abused, some stir-crazy, 
All helpless – this November day 
Has been the darkest of them all. 
And what a lesson have I learned. 
How dare I now complain of cold, 
Or tiredness, or waiting for a train? 
On behalf of all who cause 
This purgatory, I hang my head in shame 
And beg the bears’ forgiveness in my heart. 

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