Bears encouraged to participate in their own veterinary care at Animals Asia's sanctuaries.

28 February 2020

Not everyone likes to go to the doctor, however the bears at Animals Asia’s sanctuaries in Vietnam and China enjoy it more than most. This is because all of the bears in Animals Asia’s care are encouraged to help participate in their own health care. Our bear care teams work hard to develop rewarding and trusting relationships with the bears resulting in better health outcomes and less stress for the bears and their carers alike. This is a far cry from the training some of our bears will have experienced in circuses where punishment is used to force them into performing for human entertainment. Our teams only use positive reinforcement with a range of treats that the bears particularly enjoy, which they come to associate with completing specific actions.

 At the most basic level all bears are encouraged to recall into the dens at the sound of a bell to make access to the enclosures safe, for the distribution of enrichment food to encourage natural foraging behaviours and the removal of any hazards that might occur, such as broken bear furniture. This recall also gives our vet and bear teams the opportunity to observe the bears more closely in their dens where regular visual health checks take place.

 Some bears have specific health care requirements, often as a result of many stressful years held captive on bile farms in unsanitary conditions, regularly having surgical procedures performed on them for profit-making bile extraction with little to no veterinary care and unhealthy diets. Our bear teams try as much as possible to make the bear’s experience of veterinary interventions pleasurable. As you can see above Rocky, one of the Bear Team Managers at the Chengdu Bear Rescue Centre, is using a specially designed arm tube to practice the process of shaving a patch of hair so the Vet Nurse can safely take a conscious blood sample. He uses a bear favourite: sweet condensed milk, to reward the participating bear.

Many of the bears we care for have a long history of trauma and rebuilding trust is an important part of helping them participate in their health care in a way that is enjoyable rather than stressful. Phoenix was rescued from Lang Son Province in Vietnam in June 2019 having been kept in extreme captivity since at least 2005. During her last year before she was rescued, she was abandoned on a construction site with deafening building work taking place all around her. She has now begun to build trust in the humans that care for her and is even willing to freely step back into one of our transport cages which is used to take bears for their health checks and other operations at the bear hospital.

Senior Bear Team Manager Sarah van Herpt said:

“We build relationships with all the bears we care for to really minimise the stress that they might otherwise have felt when veterinary treatment is needed. Sadly a lot of bears arrive at our sanctuaries in really bad shape having suffered years of neglect and we want to help rehabilitate them in a way that they enjoy. It still surprises me that once we’ve built a level of trust, and know which treats each bear particularly likes, they will reenter a cage which was once a space of such sadness. We make sure that any trip to the bear hospital is a sweet experience for the bears, not one to be feared.”

 We are lucky because moon bears are beautifully forgiving, incredibly playful and very smart, not to mention they love tasty treats. Of course our bear care teams are careful not to give the bears too many sweet treats, partially to avoid the bears becoming resistant to their charms when it comes to carrying out the intended activities and partially to keep their teeth nice and healthy. Most dental issues that the bears have come from a history of stress in cages where bar biting is commonplace and good diets are not. Inspecting a bear’s teeth safely without an anesthetic would be hard if it wasn’t for techniques like these which Animals Asia bear experts have developed over the years.

 Animals Asia ensures that the bears we rescue receive the very best veterinary care available for the rest of their lives. Our bear care teams are crucial to achieving that in a way that is safe and enjoyable both for the bears and the people who look after them. Our promise to the bears is to always provide them with choices, and the freedom to participate in their own care, free from fear of cruelty or force. Animals Asia’s approach has always been kindness in action, and we’re pretty sure the bears like it that way.