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How a bear called Hong has saved over 600 lives.

"We all receive messages we can choose to listen to, or ignore. The decision we make can both shape our lives and change the lives of others." 

This is the advice I've given to students in schools and universities the world over since receiving a message from a caged bear on a bile farm in China.  A bear who changed my life and so many others, after we met for the one and only time in 1993.

Together with friends Anna and Kylie, I'd joined a group of Japanese and Taiwanese tourists to visit one of China's bile extraction facilities and, from the second I stepped off the bus, was immediately on an emotional roller coaster.

The farmer and his wife were quick to hustle us into an area overlooking the breeding bears who were housed in a concrete pit. With beaming faces, they gave us crude "fishing lines" on which we could hook apples and hold them over obviously hungry bears, who stood on their back feet and reached up, desperately grabbing at thin air. 

This was the first mortifying experience, seeing the tourists encouraged to tease the animals, flicking the line upwards when the bears were just inches away from the fruit. 

Fights were breaking out in the pit, as the starving bears grappled with each other and tried to grab each apple that fell to the floor. Once the tourists were convinced that real live animals were held on the farm, they were more interested in seeing the bear bile products for sale, and the farmer wasted no time in ushering us all into his shop.

The products ranged from bear bile wine, tea, eye cream, and "fresh" crystalised and liquid bile in tiny glass phials, that were selling for several US dollars each. While the tourists were immersed in their decision of what to buy, we crept quietly out of the shop and found steps to a basement where we had been told the caged "bile extraction" bears were housed.

The smell hit me first. Opening the door into the quiet room I smelt urine, faeces and infection, and blinked quickly as my eyes became used to the dark. I saw 32 cages, each holding an Asiatic black bear. The silence was broken only by the clank of metal as the bears weaved back and forth, and by strange popping sounds that grew louder the closer I walked to each cage. 


I realised with sad disbelief that these sounds were from bears frightened by my presence ‒ not able to tell the difference between a person who felt such deep sympathy for their plight, and someone who would do them harm.

Walking around in shock, I must have backed too close to one of the cages, felt something brush my shoulder and turned around in fright, convinced I was going to be attacked.

Instead, there was a female moon bear with her arm stretched through the bars of the cage looking directly over and inviting me to take her paw. Common sense left me and I reached back to her in the most natural acceptance of her invitation. I felt her long claws curl around my fingers, gently squeezing them as we looked into each other’s eyes. 

Many seconds passed in that moment, as time really did stand still, and the bear I later called Hong ("bear" in Cantonese) sent the most profound message I have ever heard. As I walked out of the basement, I had a feeling I would never see her again, and I never did.

But Hong left an indelible footprint in my heart that has never left, and a fierce determination to end the industry that saw her and the other bears suffering so terribly on that day in April, 25 years ago.

I hope Hong is dead. I can't bear the thought that she is still in such awful agony all these years later.

What I do know is that I listened to her message and, because of one bear, over 600 lives have been saved in her name.

Our sanctuaries in China and Vietnam are bursting with previously "broken" bears who are walking into spring and loving the lives and choices we have been able to return to them.


Bears like Kevin, who "smile" – very deliberately turning their mouths upwards in joy – as they swim in cool pools, or play with their friends.


Chubby Nicole who has the baldest bottom and the most beautiful face, and forages for hours even after the last bear has satisfied him or herself that the very last biscuit has gone.

Their special, individual characters demand the respect of everyone who sees them, as our broken bears are mended again in body and in mind. 

Jill-Jasper Jasper-forest

Jasper - rescue and recovery

In Vietnam the bear bile industry is over – and in the next five years, our goal and focus will deliver the promise we have with the government to ensure that every caged bear has sanctuary from the year 2022. China will see our team persevering too – and one day there will be no more cages, no more cries of pain.

sassy_LaylaSassy and Layla

Thank you Hong for your message all those years ago; for the journey you started, and for the world of happiness you brought to every bear who was luckier than you. 

Their freedom from pain and suffering, their freedom of choice and their freedom to display their boundless characters without fear, is your legacy today, and you will always be remembered as the bear who began it all.

George TAZ

George - Taz

I wish I knew what became of you after that day – after I turned at the top of the stairs for one last look into your tortured brown eyes.

The words of Tolstoy, once again come to mind, as I wish for something that you never found, but something that over 600 living souls have enjoyed ever since.: "Every man and every living creature has a sacred right to the gladness of springtime."


For Hong, this spring, may you rest in peace, from your family who never knew you, but who love you to this day.


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