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UK Ambassador, Lesley Nicol, returns to China

Lesley's face was a picture as the car pulled in to our China Bear Rescue Centre and she saw almost our entire team standing there greeting her as she arrived. Happy, smiling faces, and each person holding a letter of the alphabet that spelled out the message "Welcome back Mrs Patmore!!!".

welcome 1Huge bear hugs all round and here we were welcoming our beautiful UK Ambassador, Lesley Nicol, of Downton Abbey fame, for her third visit on site. Like our other fabulous UK Ambassador, Peter Egan, who kindly introduced Lesley to us all, her devotion to the bears has no end. Crying and laughing in equal measures, Lesley has heard their stories, immersed herself in their joy of freedom, and been present at the end of their lives. Here she was now, on a week long, sleep deprived trip, where jet lag was dismissed and her only mission to do whatever she could for the bears, and unwittingly brighten the days of all our team.

welcome 2 One of Lesley's first tasks was to be vet assistant for a couple of hours, as she followed Vet Nurse Emily in to Houses 2 and 3 to help with the bears "monthly bear check". Here Lesley offered pieces of pear to the very eager ursine recipients, encouraging them to stand tall, and, amongst other things, have abdomens, eyes and feet checked. Nice ticked boxes in both houses, as nothing of any major concern found.

bear check 1

bear check 2The next day, the bear having his routine, two-year health check under anaesthetic was none other than Xie Sheung — who I first saw on a bear bile farm in early 1993. So classically beautiful was he, that it was hardly surprising that his glorious face became our official Animals Asia logo when we were founded in 1998. Now in his 30's and a little slower in old age, Xie Sheung is as handsome as ever and happily slept through the "media fest" unaware that his paw was gently being held and stroked by Lesley as the cameras clicked away.

hc1In fact, both his and Lesley's adventure began when Xie Sheung was moved from his house over to the hospital in a transport cage. Happily munching on Lesley's hand-fed pieces of apple, the journey was soon over and Xie Sheung spent the night resting in preparation for his full medical and dental exam.

hc2On the day, our vet and bear team were superb — with Xie Sheung being pronounced in pretty good health for an old 'un, before snoozing off his anaesthetic (minus a molar that had been removed) and looking forward to being reunited with his friends in our River House for special care bears.

hc3Later that afternoon it was time to whisk Lesley back to the airport for her second trip to Nanning — and to update her on the past year of working on site at a bear farm, now holding 124 bears. On arrival into Nanning, the heat was stifling — with high humidity and upwards of 38 degrees. Ignoring the heat, as she did last year, Lesley walked through each "shed", catching up with the bears like long lost friends and giving many of them a cooling hose down.

nanning1One bear was too much — and, as expected, the tears fell down Lesley's cheeks as she arrived at Shed 3 B8 — the "home" of her bear, Pickle Nicol. Standing up on her back legs Pickle happily closed her eyes as the cool water drenched her body — and then promptly slapped her thigh whenever it stopped. None of us had seen this behaviour since last year when Lesley was there before — but Pickle undoubtedly remembered how well she'd trained Lesley not to stop the water — and, as anticipated, a long and refreshing shower was enjoyed.

nanning 2Probably the nicest part of the trip was Lesley telling our Bear and Vet Team Director, Nic, how much the condition of the bears had improved. This has been a really tough 12 months for everyone in Nanning — with no amount of problems thrown their way. Nic, Assistant Bear Manager Ai, and the whole team have overcome so many challenges, but have always put the care of the bears first, and this was now so obvious as Lesley looked at nicely rounded bodies, increasingly glossy fur, soft footpads, and bright and curious eyes no longer showing fear.

Pickle Nicol here showing off her beautiful coat and, in the words of Lesley, her “gusset pose”.

nanning 3Derek (belonging to Ricky Gervais) sat patiently for the camera while Lesley fed him "illegal" biscuits and told Ricky how beautiful his bear is today, before giving little delinquent Quinn a tummy shower and thanking our friends and supporters across the world for all their faith, patience and help.

As we move closer to seeing the permits that will allow many, or even all, of these bears to move back to Chengdu, it's clear that our year in Nanning has seen remarkable improvement for bears who have relished kindness, good food, pain free days, and their very first taste of natural behaviour and play.

Our previously traumatised cub, Smudge, is now happily integrated with new best friend Jie Jie, and even stopped playing for a few milliseconds to enjoy a little "open mouth" training and show Lesley and I her pearly white teeth.

Back in Chengdu, Lesley's last engagement was at the "Southwest Car Touring Elite" races, where Boyd, the husband of our Board member Anneleise, was racing a car all brightly decked out in the Animals Asia livery.

car1Many of the staff from Animals Asia were there to help volunteer for the day — including our PR team of Emily and Jane, Richard, Dalma and Eddie from our Vet and Bear teams, MD Jim with Cynthia (Anneleise's mum and dad), volunteers Christie, Louise, Nguyen and Jennifer, long-time supporters Sue and Steve, volunteers from Sichuan University of Media and Communications, and finally "Moonie" the bear designed by Jamy Yang, a famous designer in China — with everyone joining in and cheering Boyd on.

car2

car3The race itself was incredible, showing the skill (not to mention bravery) of the drivers, and the most fantastic vision of Boyd's car roaring multiple times around the track, and branding us each time.

car4All cars in that race also displayed an Animals Asia sticker, again ensuring the image of our work was seen by thousands of people on site and in the news later that day. Mr Miao, one of the organisers of the event has become a firm supporter of the bears, and now promised to promote them in future car races too.

Once again Lesley put the blazing heat aside and gave interviews, spoke with supporters from the UK who were thrilled to see “Mrs Patmore” at the car races, and gave Jane, Emily and volunteers signed pictures that made their whole year.

supportersThe week rushed by — and before we knew it, we were waving Lesley through the airport departure area, feeling like she was taking another little piece of us all with her. Thank you Lesley Nicol — to the moon and back — for the memories, for making everyone feel special and loved, and for being the most perfect ambassador for the bears.

Sue and Steve saying goodbye to Lesley at the airport…..

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