Moon Bear Landing

Monday 2nd October 2023 – We have lift off...

One hour. That was the time it took for our two new family members to take their first brave steps from the cages that held them captive for over 21 years. Now they were stepping into our transport cages that would take them to their new and safe lives.

two bears, rusty cages, farm captivityArmstrong and Buzz have languished for twenty years in these cages, in this shed.

Minutes before, the bears had opened previously dull eyes in wonder at being offered jam, yogurt and honey to distract them from the cages being connected, and then to gently coax them to take more steps than they'd walked for over two decades; from farm cage to rescue cage.

Armstrong is coaxed into the transport cage with delicious treats.

I blinked back tears as they approached, first cautiously then courageously, out of the darkness and into the light... This is our Moon Bear Mission – the beginning of the end of bear bile farming in Vietnam. And now Armstrong and Buzz will soon be the very first bears to take their very first steps on the surface of our new sanctuary in Bach Ma National Park.

bear in transport cageBuzz is ready to leave the dark days behind.

Like the Moon Landing in 1969, our team had prepared meticulously for this day with precision and expertise. Tuan Bendixsen, our remarkable Vietnam Director, had worked his magic again, and there we were at the farm, at 730am on Monday morning, shaking hands over lotus green tea with government officials from the Forest Protection Departments of Hanoi and Phung Thuong, and with the bear farmer and his family who had agreed to relinquish their remaining two bears. 

Simultaneously, our expert bear and vet team, led by Viet from the bear manager side, and Ngan from the veterinary side, assessed and checked both the shed and the bears, before distracting each moon bear and hitching up the cages for our historic mission.

Team preparation includes ensuring the bears are relaxed and distracted from activity that may make them anxious.

On this momentous day, we were standing in the country's hot spot of bear bile farming with another 100 or so bears remaining and suffering the agony of bile extraction on 16 farms spread across this village in Hanoi.

Despite the long road ahead, we are lucky to have friends in high places. Smiling in the background was Mr Ha, the head of the local forestry who had kindly worked with Tuan and his team to help confiscate the last two bears on this farm. He happily went on camera to emphasise that he and his department would continue collaborating with Animals Asia. They are optimistic of seeing bear farming end before 2026. And for this to happen all we need are the funds to complete building the new sanctuary.

FPD, AAFMr Ha, head of the local forestry department, shares the joy of the rescue with Vietnam Director Tuan, and Jill.

As Armstrong and Buzz were wheeled out into the sunshine and blinked up at a clear blue sky I saw perhaps a flicker of elderly helplessness being replaced with curiosity and hope. They'd never been warmed by the sun, their fur never cooled by the rain, and even the air they'd breathed, year after monotonous year, had been foul. Now, all that was behind them and we were soon on the road to freedom in a journey that would take just under two days.

bear, cage truck loadThe start of Armstrong's journey to a new life that every bear deserves.

The stops along the way allowed Viet and Junior Veterinary Surgeon Han and team to check their condition more thoroughly. Their teeth were grey and covered with tartar, their claws thick and overgrown. Sparse fur, head wounds from repetitive swaying against the bars, and nervous sidelong looks that showed a lifetime of distrust. Although nothing was immediately amiss as their abdomens were checked, only an ultrasound examination back at our hospital would determine the condition of their gall bladders following over two decades of bile extraction at the farm.

Junior Vet Han feeds the bears fresh, healthy food and monitors their health on the road home.

Han also pointed out the hind hyper-keratotic footpad of Buzz and realised that this was why she hadn't put too much weight on it during the transfer between cages. Looking more closely now in the light, it was a gruesome sight, showing thick and calcified tissue that had been allowed to grow in all directions as a result of standing so long in a cage - a cage where she had actually worn and broken the bars on which she stood, with years of stressed and repetitive weaving.

Reassuringly, neither Armstrong nor Buzz seemed too fussed with the problems we were seeing - and their mission on this journey was to eagerly scarf down as much new and novel food as they were offered. Down went fresh apples, sweet potatoes, papaya, dragon fruit, dog biscuits and bananas. And when half of a pineapple was offered, poor Buzz had no idea at which end to start, and began quite happily tucking in to the hard, green stalk.

a rescued bear receiving a banana treatA banana treat for Buzz, who already prioritises fruit over kibble. 

Even that brought me close to tears seeing how grateful they were for the smallest thing. Grateful for water, grateful for showers, grateful for pineapple stalks.

rescued bear getting a shower - AAF Cool and refreshing showers along the road keep Armstrong and Buzz happy. 

Driving into the hotel at around 7pm and settling them both down for the night with full tummies of food, we all smiled with the realisation and the promise that never, on our watch, would they go hungry again.

Tuesday 3rd October 2023 – The moon bear landing

6am: These bears teach us so quickly exactly what their preferences are and it's fun to discover that Armstrong LOVES his dog kibble, scoffing down every piece at the speed of light, before tucking into his fruit and veg. Buzz isn't much bothered about the kibble but loves her carrots and apples - and not forgetting her pineapple stalk.

Bear Manager Ellie delivers food and meds to Buzz to ease her painful paw.

Later, as a mid-morning treat they enjoyed a cooling shower while being spoiled with more snacks of fruit. Our wonderful vet, Han, managed to recheck both the bear's teeth as they opened mouths wide for huge chunks of watermelon.  The bears even shared half of a very special New Zealand apple that Tuan gave me – so many firsts

We're excited to be joined on this rescue by Mr Linh, the Deputy Head of Phung Thuong Forest Protection Department. It's the first time a government official has traveled with us on a rescue and nice to see him smiling and happy as he represents the government's promise of ending the bear farming industry in Vietnam.

His words spoke volumes about the government's impression of our team:

“Joining this trip in person helps me understands how hard your job is, how professional the team is, from the beginning when you received the bears… your first priority is always the two bears, making sure they are in the best condition to make it home."

It's hard not to feel optimistic on this day, despite the fact that nearly 300 bears remain caged. We've been promised that the rescues will continue - and, thanks to our completion of the first phase of our second sanctuary, we will do everything we can to rise to the challenge into 2024 of saving another 60 bears.

So, this is to ask, please, help us to build the second phase of our sanctuary at Bach Ma to be assured of rescuing the country’s remaining caged bears. Sadly, while we have the expertise and passion surrounding this moon bear mission, we don't have the budget of NASA – so we ask you to dig deep, and urgently spread the word that bears suffering like Armstrong and Buzz can only be helped when houses are constructed to home the bears left behind.

In the last few hours of the journey, as sun turned to rain, I watched with indescribable pride as Viet and team hauled a heavy green canvas onto the front of the truck to keep Armstrong and Buzz dry. I wondered if their noses were twitching at the smell of the damp red earth and glistening green trees around them as we climbed higher towards Bach Ma.

rescue bear in transport cage, truck on the way to rescueClose to home, Buzz looks out at a whole new world.

430pm - As the sun begins to peep through white fluffy clouds now on the perimeter of the national park, this stunning, vibrant world is their world now. We drive through the gates towards smiling happy faces of a team unashamedly excited and emotional to be welcoming the first two bears home into our Bach Ma Bear Rescue Centre, and celebrate that this is proudly a Vietnam rescue by a Vietnam team. 

Bear and vet team onsite meeting
The rescue team - Bear Manager Viet and Jnr Vet Han - brief the receiving team at the Bach Ma sanctuary before they welcome Armstrong and Buzz into their care. 

With gratitude from everyone at Animals Asia, and supporters and friends everywhere following this journey, to everyone involved – from those on the ground in Hanoi, Tam Dao, Phung Thuong, and Bach Ma, to those remotely in Vietnam and across the world. We have seen a sea change of firsts for Armstrong and Buzz.

Their first walk into a new cage, their first nibble of delicious fruit and veg, their first proper medication, their first journey half way across the country, and their first sight and smell of a sanctuary that will end bear bile farming in Vietnam forever.

rescued bear on the way to quaranting at animals asia bach ma rescue centre
Armstrong heads for 30 days quarantine, at the end of which we hope he'll be ready to embrace his new freedom. 

In a whole world of firsts surely this is the moment to celebrate that, in a similar moment in time as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin experienced over 50 years ago on the lunar surface, this week has seen one small step for a moon bear and one giant leap for moonkind.

Please help us continue until no bear is left behind.