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Victory in Vietnam – and six new bears in China!

I’ll never forget what an amazing start we had to 2013, and it signals an optimistic and hopefully incredible year ahead.

Just a few days into New Year, Toby, our China Relations Director, called to say that we should prepare to receive six bears from an illegal bile farm.

Sichuan Forestry inspectors had found a farm operating against regulations and decided to close it down, confiscating the bears and placing them under our care. Of course this is the tip of the iceberg and we know that even the legal farms are all holding bears in hideous conditions, but let’s celebrate this positive step forward and use the wretched victims we rescue to continue exposing the truth of bear bile farming in China.

Joy and relief in Vietnam

Shortly after Toby’s call, Tuan, our Vietnam Director rang too and, immediately from the tone of his voice, I knew this was going to be good news as well. In a word....VICTORY.

The eviction of our sanctuary would NOT be going ahead. Mr Tuan from the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development contacted us with the news after several meetings with the Prime Minister. Most importantly, there would be no compromise to our original project agreement and we could now carry on as before.

The news couldn’t be better – our staff, sanctuary and bears are all safe and we can now go full steam ahead and build new enclosures to bring more bear bile farming victims "home".

Our endless thanks to each and every one of you who helped us in this victory for justice..... Tuan and team especially have experienced a truly awful few months of uncertainty, all with the threat of having to move bears back into cages while something, somewhere, new could be built. And all the while our 77 local staff members not knowing if their jobs were safe, or if they could continue to provide for their families.

True to form, our brave and resilient Vietnam team continued on with the job at hand. While Tuan led a brilliant political strategy, our staff on site, led by Vet and Bear Team Director Annemarie, made sure that each day continued as "normal", with the bears having their choices and freedom as before. Endless thanks to you all, superb and professional team.

Six new bears in China

Meanwhile in Chengdu, on Wednesday the 9th of January, our new bile farm bears arrived, and once again the shocking truth of this shameful, legal industry in China, arrived with them too.

Although she was second from the front on the truck, Shamrock was the first bear to catch our attention, with her matted fur and a badly scarred and worn face from years of bar rubbing on the farm. Such was her terror from the journey by road and arriving in an unfamiliar place that, at one point, she literally hung off the top bars of her cage like a bat. That evening she trembled and moaned in her cage as the team prioritised the bears for emergency health checks and settled them down for the night. How could she know in those first few hours that our presence meant help rather than harm?

Three days later, a totally different bear started to emerge. Her health check saw us cut away Shamrock’s matted facial fur to find a stunningly beautiful member of the moon bear species underneath.

It also saw tears as she woke in her straw lined recovery cage and stretched, then stretched some more......slowly realising through her haze that she was now in a different, more comfortable and kinder world. And from there, no going back as she became more trusting, relishing every scrap of fresh food, even playing with toys, and finally having her painful, diseased gall bladder removed. She has one of the most beautiful crescent moons we have ever seen.

The other bears were no different on arrival – starving and terrified. Many just lunged for food as they came off the truck. Once they took a quick bite, they would often retreat as far back into their cages as they could, or engage in violent stereotypic behavior: thrashing, weaving and huffing in their terror and fear.

Cage under two feet high

For Peter, there was nowhere to retreat as he arrived in one of the smallest cages we’d ever seen – approximately 3 feet long, by 1 foot 8 inches wide, and just under 2 feet high. For the second largest bear in the group weighing 107 kgs, it was incomprehensible to think that he’d hardly moved in years.

Later, as he slept under anaesthetic and we uncurled him from his rusting coffin cage, we felt it would be a miracle if he had the proper use of his limbs. But, as so often happens, the bears surprise us with their stoicism and their determination never to look back.

The first hour or so after coming round, saw Peter’s back legs (and consequently the recovery cage) shaking from his effort to stand on all fours, and it was clear that he really didn't know what to do with his legs. His nerves too were in shreds, and he jumped in fright at the slightest movement, huffing at everyone in fear and anxiety, until he was satisfied that nothing was going to cause him harm.

Still this brave bear persevered – and today he has it all worked out. This bright and curious hero is standing tall, calmly contemplating not only his new surroundings, but us. A bear with the most handsome face in the world, Peter loves his food, he loves his browse and straw, and most of all he loves his bamboo toys.

Celebrities offer support

Peter also loves his new friend – none other than distinguished actor and our UK ambassador, Peter Egan, who flew 12,000 miles to meet him, and after whom Peter bear is named.

During his brief couple of days on site, Peter saturated himself with the truth of the industry, met the whole team, and said a warm hello to his new ursine friend. A wonderful man, Peter wasn't afraid to let his emotions show as he joined our whole team on site and immersed himself in the day to day management and operation of the sanctuary. It hardly seems a week since he returned to the UK, but he has left an indelible mark on us all – and Peter we all hope you can return again very, very soon.

Just before Peter arrived, we had another lovely celebrity on site – Chinese actress, Sun Li. She too flew in, all too briefly, to see the bear we had named after her. Walking carefully into the quarantine area with Nic, our Vet and Bear Team Director, and Lucky, our China PR and Education Manager, she immediately gave her bear a permanent name – Xuan Xuan, which is the name of the famous character she played in her latest TV drama in China.

Here is Sun Li on site and with Xuan Xuan during her surgery. The next pic is Nic and me checking on Xuan Xuan when she was still in her awful farm cage. She loves her new straw bed.

Once she returned to Shanghai, Sun Li began sharing her experience on Weibo (China’s version of Twitter) which was then also shared by her celebrity friends. To date, the story has been shared over 14,000 times – a massive thank you from us all Sun Li!

Shocking internal damage

As of today, Peter and all five females – Shamrock, Buddha, Xuan Xuan, Toby and Katie – have had surgery to remove their diseased and chronically painful gall bladders, and all are well on their way to recovering and at last getting the care they need.

Buddha’s gall bladder was horrific – three times its normal size, inflamed, thickened and causing unimaginable pain.

If we thought that was bad, nothing prepared us for the shock of seeing Toby's gall bladder a few days later. Ten times the normal size, watermelon shaped and containing nearly two litres of "liquid pus". No one knows the agony she endured.

We nicknamed Toby after our China Relations Director, Toby Zhang (sorry Toby, I was convinced she was a he!). I must pay tribute to Toby who has headed up a remarkable campaign to "End Bear Bile Farming" during these past few years. He has led us to the stage where we have now turned a corner, and this year will be exceptionally busy, as we see the next waves of public outrage in support of ending the industry once and for all. Here's Toby clipping the overgrown claws of his namesake.

Peter bear was on the surgery table for gall bladder removal this week, and at the other end of the scale in terms of size, he had the smallest and strangest gall bladder "type" organ we had ever seen.

About a quarter of the normal size – it seemed to be just the cystic duct – and now has vets Jo and Jen puzzled as they try to work out what on earth happened to Peter's missing gall bladder? Of course theories abound from all in the team here as we try not to think of the fact that every gall bladder has a value. Could Peter’s have been removed for profit, while the farmers continued trying (and then failing) to extract bile straight from his bile duct?

All recovering from surgery

Finally, the last of the six - beautiful Katie - was on the surgery table on Thursday. Poor girl had a horribly thickened and inflamed gall bladder containing the familiar "black sludge" bile we've seen so many times before. Infected, diseased and contaminated bile which would have found its way into so many medicines and preparations if Katie's bile was still being extracted on the farm.

Nothing changes...... the deceit and the diabolical treatment the bears receive on the farms. The operation they suffer to create the open "fistula" is deliberate surgical mutilation, and every such procedure causes a ripple effect resulting in the "broken bears" we eventually receive. It is morally and ethically wrong and even if the bears appear marginally healthy on the farms, the grim reality is that they are slowly dying from within.

When we finally say goodbye to our rescued bears, often after years of living happily at our sanctuary (and despite ongoing veterinary care), it will invariably be from a variety of cancers, peritonitis, or mobility problems of their limbs or spine – all as a result of the shocking abuse they received on the farms.

Thank you all

In that context, my respect for our staff in China and Vietnam knows no bounds. While they work diligently and conscientiously throughout these days, they suffer each day too, as they bear witness to a multitude of injuries and disease suffered so long by the bears. And each year we bury beautiful bears, so tenderly nurtured back to health and loved so much.

Our teams across the globe also continue to do the animals proud, tirelessly and seamlessly exposing the shame of bear bile farming, with the tenacity and passion that will see this industry closed down.

And never, ever forgetting YOU, our loyal friends worldwide who have helped so kindly along the way, joining and supporting us on this journey until the end.

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