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Back from the brink - again

Now that the rain has eased and the flood waters have finally receded at our bear sanctuary in Chengdu, I'd like to take this opportunity to say a huge and heartfelt thank you to everyone who rose so superbly to the challenge and helped us so generously in fund raising for repairs.

It seems unbelievable that less than three weeks ago we were looking at torrential rains and the rapidly rising River Pi lapping over our banks. One unforgettable night at 11pm saw our Administration Manager, Richard, advising that the Water Authorities had opened the Zhipingpu Dam upstream to release the increasing pressure of the water. Information from the authorities was sketchy - and it was unclear as to the real status of what faced the centre for the rest of the night.

Memories came flooding back from the earthquake in 2008, when the British Embassy had told us to evacuate as it was uncertain as to whether the dam would hold. If it burst, we were told in no uncertain words that we would literally be sunk. Luckily, the dam held at that time and we all prayed that things would settle down from then.

Sadly, Mother Nature sometimes has other ideas and was now testing everyone's resolve this year with heavy rains and floods. The surrounding farmland was waterlogged and, in a short space of time, over 200 people either died or went missing, 286,000 people were evacuated, houses collapsed or were badly damaged, thousands of acres of crops ruined, and the rains set to continue until the end of August. So far, in an effort to repair the damage and try to help all those in need, the authorities have sent in 21 teams to the worst affected areas across the province.

That night it was decided not to take any chances. Boris and Richard drove back to the centre, and everyone converged at the Bear Hospital, which is the highest position on site. Bear and Veterinary Team Director Nic and her team had moved the brown bears from their "bunker" style dens in to the hospital (into rooms downstairs) as the water had been rising throughout the course of the day. The kennel dogs had also been taken up on to the top level of the hospital.

All other dogs were brought in to the general living area of the hospital on the second floor, and everyone began to bunk in rooms together from around 1am. Walkie-talkies were all tuned to Channel 2 and remained on for the rest of the night. Frequent bulletins from Security (and Boris) ensued, with those of us not able to speak Chinese simply listening out for "liu" signalling that the water was still 60cm from overflowing. At 6am it was 45cm from coming over the edge, but was seeping in to the perimeter of the sanctuary and surrounding farmland.

All around us, the farms were flooding, the River Pi was rising and fast flowing, with a three storey house and other properties just across from our Special Care River House collapsing into the water after coming away in parts over the course of two days. Thankfully the occupants had moved out earlier, but it was a horrible sight to witness these family homes and possessions crashing in to the swirling waters and disappearing into the distance.

Although we were comparatively lucky, on-site damage quickly became obvious too - with our path by the river opening in to wide cracks in places along the route, and many metres of the concrete bank itself collapsing and caving in.

During this time, the situation on repairs changed daily and our Project Director Boris and his team could only join the queue of people requesting help and advice from the authorities and experts on hand.

Needless to say, every single person here has been fantastic while the threat of major flooding has been present throughout this time. Without fail, everyone began taking on new jobs and extra responsibilities with enthusiasm, kindness and humour. So many to thank of course, but special credit in this message to Yi Rong and all in Security Department for working round the clock over several days, and making sure that the situation was as safe as possible for everyone on site.

Boris and his team eventually managed to organise three different advisers (not specific experts, but at least somewhat experienced on the subject) to come along and make recommendations, and today we finally have sand bags and tarpaulin along the damaged areas, to act as a buffer against more flooding and water damage. This is a temporary measure that may not hold up in a major flood situation, but could provide greater resistance in an already compromised situation.

Meanwhile, the major repairs, running in to tens of thousands of dollars, will begin hopefully in the dry season from around October. In reality, it's impossible to budget or be specific about repairs, until we're able to talk with a qualified engineer on site who can properly assess the damage and advise.

The relief in Chengdu is palpable - and again the hugest of thanks to everyone in the team who pulled together as one, and kept our staff, bears and sanctuary safe and to our wider team everywhere for helping to keep supporters informed and updated.

Last but not least, endless thanks to you, dear reader, for helping us through another critical time in this journey to end bear bile farming. Never in a million years did we ever think we'd have earthquakes and floods to contend with outside of everything else. I can only think of the saying that "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger".

To that end, every cloud has a silver lining and laughing at a black/brown Muppet one day (here showing off his normal biscuit coloured coat), showed that at least one of our team absolutely loved the excuse for a good old fashioned roll in the mud.

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