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Tears of joy and sadness - thank you Lesley and Da'aboth

What a perfect way to start an early summer’s afternoon in Chengdu – meeting Lesley Nicol and her husband Da’aboth off their flight from the UK. Despite about 24 hours of travel and little sleep, both were bright eyed and bushy tailed and raring to see the bears.

For anyone who hasn't seen Downton Abbey (and please, please do if you haven’t, as the series is fantastic) Lesley plays resident cook Mrs Patmore in what has become one of the most widely watched TV programmes in the world. The series has received numerous awards, including a Golden Globe for best Miniseries or Television Film, and earned the most nominations of any international television series in the history of the US Primetime Emmy Awards!

And, also for the record, as an accomplished and much loved actress, Lesley has a string of acting credentials under her belt and is one of the loveliest, most self-effacing visitors we've ever had the pleasure to host.


Arriving at the sanctuary, Lesley and Da'aboth were introduced to all of our excited staff, who were thrilled to see them, owing to the fact that Downton Abbey is also hugely popular in China. Everyone wanted a picture, and Lesley didn't even flinch as she enjoyed the first "fan mob" of her trip and happily spent time with all, as the cameras clicked.

Next it was on to meet two of our resident dogs – Muppet and To Zhai, both rescued meat market dogs who are now very spoiled, and who of course both behaved appallingly, and were greeted with nothing but smiles and friendly pats.

Finally it was time to walk around and meet the bears – first Tibetan brown bears Benji and Poupouce. Without hesitation, Benji sauntered right up to the fenceline to say hello – bright and curious as always – and casually sniffing the air in front of Lesley to identify her and make sure she smelled friendly!

Lesley and Da'aboth adored them both, taking some fantastic close-ups of Benji's nose before it was time to move and meet the very famous Jasper and his friends in House 2.

There was Jasper outside in the enclosure, but rather embarrassingly he decided that he'd lie just where he was, thank you very much, with his bottom facing his celebrity audience, rather than his beautiful distinctive face. Lesley thought it was hilarious – our first introduction to her infectious sense of humour that would see laughs and tears in equal measure over the next few days.

Cheeky Jasper soon became charming back in the den when he saw Lesley with some treats!

Luckily, Delaney (also nicknamed Aussie) was more polite and entertained us all as he and beautiful female bear Smart played together in the grass. With his distinctive long legs and "W" shaped crescent, Delaney stopped his antics for a few seconds to check out what all the fuss was about, before resuming his play.

Next it was on to the River House – one of our special care areas, where "mobility bears" Chu Chu and Crystal reside. Chu Chu immediately (but somewhat slowly) wandered over to say hi – and thoroughly enjoyed being hand fed through the chain link fence with a few choice pieces of apple, gently taking them from Lesley and Da'aboth's fingers.

Chu Chu was one of our original bears, who I first saw on a bear farm in 1993. Caged for many years, before finally being rescued in 1995, Chu Chu would now be around 30 years of age (perhaps about 90 years in human terms).

Literally in tears, crying unashamedly in front of everyone (and endearing us even more to this compassionate, wonderful woman) Lesley spoke of Chu Chu's life and suffering in a cage, adding: "It's mind blowing to see them in the flesh because you can't get that in a picture – exceptionally charismatic beings and it just takes your breath away. To actually get up close and feed Chu Chu... it's beautiful – and you just want to apologise to them big time that they have the grace to come up and trust you enough. Of course they love the food, but they do you the honour of taking it from a human being when their previous experience was atrocious, and you would think that they wouldn't take the risk, so how courageous is that?"

That evening saw a casual dinner and a couple of hours of laughs and relaxation in our hospital accommodation with our vet and bear team, before Lesley and Da'aboth finally flopped into bed for a good night's sleep.

The next morning it was over to the hospital – this time to see Mani (also known as Rosie) on the surgery table for her bi-annual general health check.

Mani is a three legged bear (from being illegally trapped in the wild) probably nearing her thirties. She was in surprisingly good condition and only needing a cracked pre-molar to be removed by vet Jo. Some arthritis showed up on the X-ray, which is not surprising given her past, but otherwise all was well. As Mani was on the table, Lesley helped to clip her claws, and give her injections of pain killer and antibiotics (which she did with all the expertise of a vet nurse). Here she is with our own vet nurse, Adina, and below at work on a "mani/pedi" for Mani.

She then held Mani’s front paw and laughingly said it smelled like sweaty socks, but she loved it and admitted that she and Da'aboth smelled the paws of their two dogs, Freddy and Bertie all the time. Da'aboth was more polite and said Mani's paw smelled like custard cream biscuits!

Next was the saddest part of the day as we went into the room where our beautiful Frodo was lying in her recovery cage. She had been poorly for the past couple of weeks with severe mobility problems and unable to stand. Many discussions had ensued between the vet team and various experts around the world – with a CT scan at the local people hospital on Wednesday finally and sadly confirming that there was no longer anything our vet team could do. Frodo's spine had become progressively more damaged as a result of all those years caged on a farm, and considering too that she had only three legs from being illegally snared in the wild, her mobility was even more compromised as a result.

We knew that her time had come but it didn't make the decision any easier. So many people streamed in to the room during the course of the morning to say a sad farewell to a bear who had been with us since 2001. Together with our caring Bear Team Supervisors, Howard, Ai and Rocky, and sobbing throughout, Lesley gently offered Frodo some "illegal" biscuits soaked in honey and then gave her the rest of the jar – which she loved.

The time came to say goodbye to Frodo and she lay on the surgery table while everyone arrived to say a final farewell. The next few minutes were so terribly sad.... with poor Jo, bravely trying to be strong as she administered the injection, and with so many staff there ranging from those who cared for her each day, to many more besides in Administration, Accounts and HR.

Everyone stood around the table struggling with emotions – some holding her paws, others stroking her fur and all of us in our own way telling her how much we loved her and thanking her for the years of happiness she had given to a species that really didn't deserve her forgiveness at all.

As she slept under anaesthetic, I felt compelled to speak the words from a poem we say at the bears’ graves, while she was still alive: “Please look upon the others and give them promise of hope soon, and tell them to be patient and proudly wear the moon.”

And then Frodo was gone.

Lesley said later that, apart from the devastating feeling of seeing Frodo in that situation, it was equally moving to see the heroic way our young Chinese staff were standing there fighting to keep their emotions in check and somehow not managing it. She said "They had such love and respect for that bear – and are such amazing people. I had to hug Howard and probably embarrassed him to death – but in fact he hugged me right back! I talked to Howard later through an interpreter and he said it is such a huge responsibility to look after these bears."

That afternoon, Lesley gathered all her strength together to play a major acting role – not surprisingly along the lines of her Downton Abbey namesake Mrs Patmore.

She was hilarious – taking up the challenge and making everyone laugh in a much needed light moment after the sadness of the morning. Bustling in to the kitchen, chopping up a storm with our delighted kitchen staff, and piling up a smorgasbord of fruit and vegetable pieces – all the while surrounded by the Chinese media.

Witty and kind, she belted out pretend orders to an imaginary Daisy, before marching out into the sunshine with her masterpiece and helped Bear Manager Sofie and our bear team lay it all out in House 1. Naturally she took the chance to lie in a bear hammock and sit on top of a bear "hide" before going up onto the roof for an hour to watch the bears charge out of their dens and enjoy their afternoon meal.

In the next enclosure were newly released bears Peter and Shamrock, both pottering happily around in their enclosure oblivious to the presence of a celebrity in their midst. At one point Peter rested his head on top of Shamrock's back in a clear sign of affection – and we knew we had something special to report back to Peter bear's namesake, our UK Ambassador, celebrity actor and Lesley and Da'aboth's friend, the lovely Peter Egan.

At the end of the day, it was back on the emotional roller-coaster as we went to Frodo's funeral and said our final goodbyes.

Lesley shared the reading of the poem with Sofie, crying her way through and of course making everyone else shed more tears. She and Da'aboth then respectfully stood by Frodo's grave as the team placed her favourite food and toys next to her body, before covering her with soil, and placing a wooden "crescent moon" on top as a sign of love and respect for another victim of the bear farming trade.

So many other memories flooding back now of Lesley and Da'aboth's time with the bears... returning to feed Chu Chu again, meeting Oliver and being both awestruck and devastated for his loss of a lifetime and 30 years in a cage, and seeing this broken bear now playing in slow motion, and trying to destroy his swing. Then wandering over to House 7 to say a proper hello to the very special Peter Bear....who climbed down curiously from his hanging basket bed and enjoyed some pieces of apple.

On the way out of the bear house, we passed 3-legged Kevin's den where he was lying in a hanging basket bed and, according to Lesley, looking a bit sad. Immediately trying to remedy the situation, she and Darb sang a good old fashioned Beatles song to cheer him up; "Love, love me do" – much to the fascination and smiles of all our China staff!

The bears who were lying outside with their tums in the air were given a new description by Lesley, once again celebrating her wonderful sense of humour. This position is now officially known as the "gusset pose" as demonstrated by lovely old Asia below. Soon Lesley was feeding our threadbare bear, Asia, and talking to camera as if she'd known this sweet old bear for the whole of her life.

And in the same Special Care Area feeding elderly Barri (re-naming him Bazza) and saying at the same time, "The older bears just melt your heart because they're trusting and incredibly slow, but if they decide to come to you they will come as quick as they can. They have these beautiful soft mouths and huge tongues and Barri actually showed me his tongue when I asked him to – and it was about nine feet long and he dribbled all over me and it was heaven. These gummy bears with no teeth, you think, am I going to get hurt....and you realise absolutely not......they teach us about trust."

And leaving the last words of course to someone we hope will return:

"I woke up in the middle of the night, thinking about the bears and realised the whole Animals Asia team put the light on in their lives......"

Come back soon Lesley and Da'aboth – you brought sunshine into our lives.

The Daily Mail ran a fabulous piece on their visit. Please see it here.

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