Starfire receives rabies vaccine in a new trial to improve bear health and welfare

17 March 2021

Starfire, one of the most recent bears to be rescued by Animals Asia, became the first resident at our Vietnam rescue centre to receive a rabies vaccine in a pioneering new trial to further improve the welfare of the bears in our care.

Rabies is a deadly viral disease that can potentially infect all mammals including humans. 

In Vietnam rabies continues to be a widespread issue and our bear rescue centre in Vinh Phuc province is located in a national park where bats, the most frequently reported rabid wild animal, are prevalent.

The bears spend lots of time during the day outside and the fruit given to them could attract the bats, therefore putting the bears at risk of coming into contact with potential carriers of the deadly disease.

Although there haven’t been any reports of moon bears catching rabies, it has been discovered in other bear species, including the polar bear and black bear.

Other rescue centres and sanctuaries around the world have been using the rabies vaccine as a way of building other bear species’ immune systems against the disease and further protecting their overall health.

Animals Asia is leading the way in trialling the rabies vaccine with moon bears to see if it provides them with the same immune response and levels of protection it offers other bear species and animals such as dogs, cats and horses. 

The trial begins!

15 moon bears who are already receiving dental treatments have been selected for the trial at our Vietnam sanctuary. This means that we can vaccinate them while they are already under anaesthetic and also collect a blood sample which will be sent for testing to check whether they have already been exposed to the disease.

Blood will again be collected around 8-12 months after the initial vaccination to test immunity levels and if required, the bears will then receive a booster vaccine during their health check every two years. The trial will continue until 2025 and if successful, the vaccine will be rolled out to the rest of the bears at the Vietnam sanctuary. 

An update on gentle Starfire

We haven’t shared much news with you about the beautiful Starfire since she was rescued from a bile farm last November. We have been waiting to see how she progresses and adapts to her new life and freedoms after being confined to a small, barren cage for 18 years.

Starfire - previously named Torrent - is the 222nd bear to be rescued by our team in Vietnam and 640th bear rescue by Animals Asia in total. As we’ve seen from the many rescues we’ve done and the many wonderful bears we’ve had the pleasure of meeting and watching grow and gain in confidence, we never know how a bear is going to react to the sense of space, freedom, light and companionship that they have - until now - never had.

Starfire has been somewhat tentative in her approach, cautiously exploring her den and new surroundings. And yet, after just a few months of consistent nurturing and endless patience and love from her new carers, she has started to blossom into a playful, gentle and hungry bear!

Bear Team Manager Hoang Van Chien enthuses about her progress:

“Starfire loves sweet food such as sugar cane, jam and molasses, though she is not a fan of sweet potato or carrot! Dragon fruit must be her favourite, she always eats it first.”

“Her favourite thing to do is play with hessian sacks, she rolls around with them for hours. She also spends lots of time napping in a nest in front of her den. She is a very sweet and gentle bear, who has made a lot of progress but still has a little way to go to feel fully at home and relaxed. Everything is so new to her.”

Shaun Thomson our Senior Veterinary Surgeon explains further:

“Starfire is the first of our residents at the sanctuary to receive the rabies vaccine as she is currently undergoing dental treatment on her teeth which are in a bad way from years of living in poor conditions on the bile farm.

“Luckily, thanks to our generous and compassionate supporters across the world, Starfire is now well on her way to becoming the happy, healthy and carefree bear she was always destined to be.”

Storm, who was rescued along with Starfire, is progressing more slowly in adjusting to life at our sanctuary. We won’t rush her, but it’s clear that she has been severely traumatised by her years of confinement and bile extraction. Our bear care teams are living up to their names by providing encouragement to slowly but surely gain her trust.

Recently she accepted hand feeding from Senior Bear Team Manager Sarah van Herpt for the first time, a crucial step in her recovery, as it allows our vet team to inspect her health condition without the need for anesthetic.

Watch this space for more news on these two wonderful bears and if you can please join us with a regular donation to provide the specialist expert support and care our rescued bears need to enjoy the years of their lives we’re able to give back to them.

Read more:

Animals Asia becomes first NGO to join rabies prevention and control committee in China 

Local authorities pledge to tackle the cruel and dangerous dog meat trade in central Java  

Starfire’s rescue story

Live coverage of Starfire’s rescue