11 June 2014, 16:14PM
Flying in to Nanning to begin three days of emergency health checks, we looked up at the sky to be greeted by a beautiful crescent moon. A good sign considering that we were here to help endangered moon bears, so called because of the lemon coloured crescent of fur on their chests.
To a person, every one of us was apprehensive — from vet team, to bear team managers and supervisors, communications staff and translators. This was field work in the raw, where six bears were going to be anaesthetised and examined — undergoing procedures to remove the pain they had been suffering for years.
Sheds 1 and 2
These were the first lucky six of 130 bears previously caged and drained of their bile, or brought in as breeding bears, on one of China's notorious bear bile farms. In an astonishing act of compassion last year, Mr Yan, the bear farmer, had contacted government officials saying that bear farming was "cruel and hopeless”, and consequently he wanted to give up his farm and find a good home for the bears. The officials suggested that he work with Animals Asia, and so Mr Yan and his staff came along to have a look at our bear rescue centre in Chengdu, Sichuan Province. Here, to date, we have rescued 285 bears, while our other sanctuary in Tam Dao National Park, Vietnam, has rescued another 118 previously farmed bears.
From there, things moved rapidly, and we began talking with Mr Yan about the potential of taking only some of his bears in need of more intensive care to our Chengdu sanctuary, and converting his farm into a sanctuary for the rest of the bears living there. By doing this, we could show a win-win solution to the Chinese public that bears, bile farm owners and the country can benefit from turning a cruel and unnecessary industry around, celebrating this charismatic species of bears for their own sake, rather than for how they can "benefit" humankind.
While of course this would be an expensive campaign to take on (we are desperately trying to raise US$5 million in the next three years) we also know that Mr Yan could have sold his bears for far more money to other farms. Furthermore, this bear farmer had the integrity to stand up at our press conference in Beijing in April, stating his reasons for moving out of the industry and releasing his bears from their pain.
Now, driving to the farm to carry out health checks, we knew that the bears would take priority and that their need was bigger than any feeling of fear or apprehension we had at this time. This was about them and these next three days would see us putting aside those emotions, and being the professionals they needed us to be.
Inside Shed 3 where the vet team worked in a side room.
Joining us on this momentous trip was UK actress, Lesley Nicol who plays the bossy, but warm-hearted cook, Mrs Patmore, in the popular period drama, Downton Abbey. Larger than life, and twice as funny, with a sharp sense of humour, Lesley had visited us last year in Chengdu, where she showed her immediate empathy for the bears, and a heart as big as China. Accompanying her was UK voice-over artist and film maker Andrew Telling, who was documenting her trip to help promote the bears.
Preparing a dirty bear farm room for medical procedures was no easy feat, but once again our team rose to the challenge and, before long, it was looking something like a field surgery out of MASH. Our bear team supervisors Rocky and Ai, quickly made a "drip stand" out of metal tubing for the fluid bags, while everyone else got busy unpacking medical bags, setting up the equipment, and preparing for the first anaesthetic of the day.
Bear Manager, Heidi, adjusts the make-shift drip stand.
Vet Jen, and nurses Wendy and Vicki quietly began preparing to anaesthetise a bear we named Delilah. Worryingly, fate played a bad hand in delivering a shock with this very first bear, as Delilah stopped breathing a few minutes after the anaesthetic took hold. Luckily, again our vet team are well prepared and, after a couple of minutes of resuscitation, Delilah was breathing again and stabilised for her health check. Vulnerable, as she lay on the floor, it was immediately obvious that she had been through years of trauma. A large scar, just millimetres from her jugular, and prominent nipples indicated that she may have been one of the farms "breeding" bears and caught up in a fight during the breeding season. She may also have been a bile extraction bear too — and with three shattered teeth to remove, it was clear that she had spent a long time in a cage, frantically biting the bars as so many do, before eventually breaking her own teeth.
The Vet Team - VIcki, Jen and Wendy.
Over the next three days, a total of six bears had health checks — all of them having multiple damaged teeth removed, with some, like Pickle Nicol (now Lesley's bear) having had them deliberately cut back to gum level at some point on a bear farm (perhaps before they arrived in Nanning). Pickle had also been "de-clawed", with the removal of her paw tips, preventing her nails from ever growing again. Many of our rescued bears have been a victim of this cruel procedure — but, as ever, their stoic and adaptive nature sees them able to survive and endure without the use of their claws or teeth.
Pickle also proved herself worthy of being Mrs Patmore's bear as she playfully slapped her own thigh whenever she wanted attention. This became obvious when Lesley was giving her a cooling hose down in the heat of the day, and Pickle would slap her thigh if the water stopped, obviously asking for more. For some reason, this action reminded me of the old Howard Keel film Seven Brides for Seven Brothers ......as he overacted, thigh slapped, and sang "Ber'less your beautiful hide" with a wide smile and pearly white teeth!
Lesley Nicol hoses Pickle Nicol.
In between the smiles of those helter-skelter days of highs and lows, we were to see many other shocking sights. Milly bear not only had her front paws de-clawed, but the claws of her back feet were horribly overgrown, with one actually growing over and puncturing through her pad. The smell of infection was ghastly, necessitating vet Jen to "debride" some of the dead tissue so that the paw could, at last, heal. Poor Milly's teeth were horrible too — hardly even recognisable as such after being cut back to the bone by someone with no medical knowledge at all, leaving pulp and nerves exposed, and bone now growing over the stumps. With nothing "normal" presented in her mouth and much bleeding, it was a very difficult surgery for Jen.
Milly's front and back paws - one declawed, the other overgrown into her pad.
Besides awful teeth and paws, other bears were clearly the victims of the "free drip" method — the only method of bile extraction allowed under Chinese regulations, which sees a fistula (or hole) carved in to a bear’s abdomen and gall bladder, so that bile can freely drip out. Both Pickle and bear B13 (soon to be named) had scar tissue and obvious bile extraction sites and, like approximately 20 other bears, will need their obviously damaged gall bladders eventually removed.Several of the bears on the farm are also blind, or have serious eye problems, and again will need much attention once we can obtain the permits to move them from the bear farm in Nanning to our sanctuary in Chengdu.
Milly, recovered and resting after her health check.
All this time, our vet team carried on — with temperatures in the mid 30's and with all needing to remain in the same position for hours at a time, either monitoring anaesthetic or holding the bears’ heads as Jen worked through. Jen herself, suffering from a bad back and at one point lying on the floor in an effort to click it back into place — nine hours each day, bending over bears, had obviously not improved it at all.
Three days straight saw the most fantastic effort by our vet team as they worked through seven to nine hour surgical procedures, and then on to 11pm at night as they waited until the final bear had fully recovered and was standing on all fours. Respect and thanks to them and to the rest of our team doing a multitude of jobs over those days, and now preparing for more in the weeks and months ahead.
With Nic, our Vet and Bear Team Director, heading up the operation in both Chengdu and Nanning, it's safe to say that she and all involved are simply run ragged, but astonishingly their sense of humour is well intact too and we had many moments of smiles (bordering on hysteria) in between the raw.
Galaxy's health check begins.
The relief of the week was that a very thin bear we had named Galaxy, because of her beautiful chocolate-coloured coat, was actually pronounced fairly healthy and had no underlying, serious illness. We had feared for Galaxy because of her severely thin body, suspecting that this may be a symptom of liver cancer that we have seen so often in farmed bears. However, it appears that she simply needs plenty of nutritional food, and after having three horribly damaged and painful canine teeth removed, we expect her to soon thrive.
Named Galaxy for her beautiful, brown colour.
Another nice conclusion, noted by Lesley, was that Pickle Nicol became less stereotypic after her broken teeth were removed — clearly already insensible to pain and now able to really enjoy her food at last. Today, our team are working hard to improve the bears' diet and offer a variety of fruit and vegetables they have never enjoyed before. With Bear Manager Heidi again on site this week and heading up the bear team, the bears have free access to water, hose showers and enrichment items such as browse for the adults and younger bears, plus a little climbing frame and plastic bowl paddling pool for our youngest cub, four-five month old Smudge.
Mr Yan the bear farmer (as was), also impressed us deeply when he came over and spent a whole morning watching Galaxy’s health check. Asking questions and taking pictures, he was clearly interested in everything that went on, and delighted too when Lesley gave him a signed photograph of her character, Mrs Patmore.
Mr Yan and Lesley Nicol.
Although never having visited a bear farm in her life, Lesley Nicol was a star in every sense of the word. Another blog on her visit soon but, for now, my enduring memory is of her hosing down the bears, while singing to them too — the corridor in Shed 3 resonating to the familiar sounds of Abba, and particularly, perhaps the most appropriate song of all: "Take a Chance on Me".
This is our chance of turning a farm to a sanctuary, working with a bear farmer to change the lives of these bears, and collaborating with the people of China in ending one of the most egregious practices in the world. I hope you will help us, Peace by Piece, as Animals Asia continues our journey, helping these stoic, forgiving bears.
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