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Good Luck, Goodbye, Rainbow

I wonder if it all made sense to Rainbow when the door of the crate was opened and she looked out into forest instead of den bars. Over the next few minutes she hesitated time and time again, and sniffed the inside and top of the crate as if just a little reluctant to leave. Calm and curious, her nose took in the scent of the wild once more and breathed in the misty forest air.

Rainbow leaving crate

Several minutes later, having slowly crept out of the box that confined her, Rainbow sat in front of it continuing to look around at the wonders of nature that surrounded her, but occasionally peering back in to the crate, almost taking comfort from its presence now that she was free.

Rainbow in front of crate

We could all hardly breathe – watching her from a safe distance, and wondering where her three healthy limbs would take her – praying that her disability of missing half her front right limb would not be too much of an impediment now that she was once again wild.

Since her rescue four weeks ago from the snare that had caught her in the mountains of Peng Zhou, this yearling cub has remained a wild little bear. After Vet Sheridan, Senior Vet Nurse Wendy and Veterinary Intern Max took her into surgery and amputated the necrotic, infected limb that had been irretrievably damaged by the snare, we have seen a never ending round of emails, calls and Skypes with biologists and experts in China and the USA.

IUCN Bear Specialist Co-Chair, Dave Garshelis, has over 30 years experience as a bear biologist conducting research in North America and Asia. Bear Biologist John Beecham also has over 30 years experience, and consults on release programmes all over the world. Respected Chinese bear biologist Liu Fang works domestically and internationally on bear research and specifically on population studies with Asiatic black bears in China.

Post op

Rainbow recovering post op, after her rescue.

With one voice they advised us to let her go. Her body condition was good, her permanent teeth were through and with or without a mother, she had survived these past months well. Even now with half a limb missing, confidence remained high that a member of this robust and stoic species of bear would survive, as so many others do in similar circumstances in countries across the world.

Recovering under our care, Rainbow was fierce and often explosive. Contact with people was kept at a minimum, a rotating selection of natural food was quietly brought in at different times of the day and in different amounts, natural substrate like dried leaves was laid on the floor, and she was left on her own for the majority of her time.

This treatment was far removed from how we normally care for our newly rescued bears, and it pained us to be so distant. However, it was so important that she didn't associate people with comfort or food – and we knew that she ate when no-one was around, and that she ate very well.

A GPS collar was ordered so that we could track her movements over the next three months, and the Forestry officials in Chengdu and Peng Zhou were fully supportive of releasing her a little way away from where she was originally found. They advised that the snare was almost certainly old, as the entire mountain reserve was protected and they had swept the area since. They had even prosecuted illegal poachers two years before, so she would be an extremely unlucky bear if she was ever snared again.

With all the advice we received and digested, the decision to set Rainbow free was unanimous, and we prepared at 7am last Wednesday to perform a quick health check, give her one last examination, and fit her GPS.

As with all great plans, the unexpected happened – and as Rainbow slept through her anaesthetic, Sheridan and Wendy saw that she had broken a canine tooth. More discussion between the team and the decision was made to remove it, acknowledging that the infection seen would only get worse. Vet Eddie performed the fastest, cleanest tooth extraction, her collar was fitted with the help of Bear Manager Ryan who has worked on collaring animals in the field in Africa, and she was now recovering in a crate as we drove towards her mountain home.

LEAVING crate 2

Snaking up the mountain path another, more serious, problem arose as we discovered that the GPS collar had stopped working and was failing to pick up the GPS signal in the mountains of Peng Zhou. More calls to biologist John Beecham in the USA who advised that it should be removed for fear of the release mechanism also malfunctioning in three or four months’ time. The future collar release was critical as Rainbow still has much growing to do and her neck would soon become too big for the collar, risking strangulation if it didn’t release.

It was too late to take her back and order another collar, considering the weeks this would entail, and another tough decision was made to let her go without a GPS and without any means of us tracking her as she returned to the wild. With heavy hearts, Sheridan and Wendy anaesthetised her for the last time to remove the collar and place her back in the crate for release.

As Rainbow woke and became active again, did she now realise that those who had gently set her down in her crate were not the enemy or the foe? On that misty mountain clearing the Peng Zhou forestry officials, Boris, Sheridan, Wendy, Max, Saladin and I held our breath as Rocky pulled the rope mechanism that set the door free.

Mountain release

Rainbow surprised us all by not hurtling out in a flurry of juvenile rage, but sitting for a while, perhaps letting her nose tell her that while people were nearby, her forest home beckoned her too.

After several more minutes of hesitation, she began turning slowly right along the side of the box, and was just disappearing into the forest, when she briefly turned back and took a last lingering look inside the crate, before turning again and disappearing from our sight for good. The bushes rustled, the leaves of low tree branches waved gently back and forth, and we could see she was venturing farther and farther away from our world, and back into hers.

I don't think there has been a single day since when we haven't thought about Rainbow and prayed she's surviving and well. Did she find her mother? Does she enjoy the wild blackberries that we enjoyed too? Is she content in her world, as our captive bears are contented in theirs?

Our entire team put her welfare first, and put heart and soul into ensuring that her release was as smooth and safe as it could possibly be – the rest is up to her, and not a small amount of luck, as she begins to live life again as she was born... vulnerable, wild and free.

The last words go to Vet Sheridan, with a perfect end to what is now hopefully a perfect life, for a little bear we able to help to go home:

"Our poem that is read when a bear passes away can also be applied to Rainbow – she was like no other bear, with qualities unique and rare. She was not ours to keep, simply to care for while she recovered before returning her to where she belonged. Even writing this brings a tear to my eye because although we may never know what happens to Rainbow, or what her life may hold, we do know that we did everything we could for that little bear and gave her back the chance of Freedom, of the Wild, that was almost cruelly taken from her with that snare. She is back home, just as it should be."

Endless thanks to all involved – whether directly or indirectly – and again our heartfelt thanks to Liu Fang in China, and John Beecham and Dave Garshelis in the USA for all their advice and generosity of time and expertise. 

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