Rescuing and rehabilitation

The Bears

Many of the bears we receive are in a shocking condition and suffering from serious health conditions. Most are likely to have an inflamed gall bladder and abdominal infections. Some also suffer from heart disease, liver cancer, blood poisoning or peritonitis; some are blind or partially sighted, some have missing, broken, sawn down or rotten teeth from bar biting or poor diet, others are missing limbs from being illegally caught in the wild. A large proportion are stunted, deformed or crippled with osteoarthritis from being permanently confined in cages that are too small for their bodies; many have severely callused, diseased and deformed paws from having spent decades standing on cage bars; some also have extensive hair loss from repetitive rubbing against the bars of their cages or from a compromised immune system; many also have self-inflicted wounds and display stereotypic behaviour like Almost all of the bears are angry, frightened, malnourished and dehydrated.

The rehabilitation of our rescued bears is a long process that takes many months. But with expert attention from our veterinary and behavioural management team, and the care of our bear staff, the majority recover to become lively, happy bears. For many reasons, the bears we receive must remain in our care for the rest of their lives and cannot be released into the wild. Most farmed bears are too sick to survive without care and, having been kept in captivity for most of their lives, also lack the necessary survival skills. The lack of suitable habitat – and poor enforcement of wildlife protection regulations in countries where wild bears still exist – also means that released bears would face the very real danger of being killed for their body parts or captured and returned to the bile farming industry.

Arrival and Health Checks

When the bears arrive at our sanctuaries, they are transferred to recovery cages and moved to the quarantine area. Here they are given water and food, and assessed and prioritised for treatment depending on their condition and the extent of their injuries.

Health checks may be conducted immediately, or several weeks after the bears’ arrival, when they have built up their strength in preparation for the anaesthesia.

During the health check, the vet team make a full assessment of each bear’s condition – using ultrasound to check the abdomen and assess the extent of problems related to bile extraction, taking blood, examining teeth, cleaning ears, trimming claws, and in some cases taking X-rays to examine the condition of the bears’ joints and spraying their bodies against parasites – in order to prioritise individuals for any surgery that might be needed.

In Chengdu, many of the bears we receive need to undergo major abdominal surgery – either to remove the crude metal catheters embedded in their abdomens or to repair the "free-drip" hole from which bile was extracted. During this surgery, which can last up to eight hours, the bears are also thoroughly checked for other ailments, with many undergoing a cholecystectomy to remove the damaged gall bladder, as well as dental extractions and even amputations. At the China sanctuary, male bears are also desexed to prevent aggression during rehabilitation and to help group socialisation.

Bears recovering from surgery are closely monitored by our veterinary team, who oversee their daily medication – disguising bitter-tasting antibiotics and pain-killers in thick, fruity shakes.

The Road to Recovery

All bears spend at least 45 days quarantined in recovery cages, where they receive veterinary care and medication and where their health is carefully monitored. Here our vet teams can observe the bears at close quarters pre- and post-surgery, and ensure that they take any medication that might be needed.

During this period, the bears enjoy a variety of environmental enrichment – browse (greenery) that they can eat or use to make “nests”, and bamboo feeder toys and kongs (durable rubber toys) filled with treats. The recovery cages are large enough for the bears to be able to move around comfortably and the enrichment items are changed daily on a rotational basis to ensure that the bears get the stimulation they need during their initial recovery.

The quarantine period plays an important role in preparing the bears for their final release into the dens and enclosures, and helps them gradually regain their strength and confidence. After long years of confinement, many are suffering from arthritis and atrophied muscles and are physically too fragile to move around a challenging enclosure. Many are also mentally unable to deal with open spaces and need time to adjust to their new surroundings and gain confidence.

Learning bear behaviour

Animals in the wild exist in environments that offer endless natural stimulation and spend most of their lives engaged in instinctive behaviour – foraging, searching for a mate, creating a safe rest area, caring for young and developing basic survival skills. Farmed bears are deprived of all of this – often for their whole lives.

Animals in human care require an extensive behavioural and environmental enrichment programme to make up for the lack of natural stimulation and promote their overall physical and psychological health and well-being.

The challenge for the Animals Asia team is to provide a stimulating and changing environment for the bears, every day of their lives, to help prevent boredom and aggression. We do this through a behavioural and environmental enrichment programme that includes environmental furniture such as play structures, log walls and platforms, and by providing sensory stimulation in the form of novel toys and appropriate feeding strategies. Our enrichment calendars ensure that no two days are the same over a seven-day period. A range of treats like bear-sized fruity ice blocks and smears of fermented tofu or honey are also rotated over four different weeks so that no two weeks are the same in any month. A variety of locally grown seasonal browse is delivered daily and offered twice per day. Added to this is the bears’ regular diet of fruit, vegetables and dog kibble, all of which ensures that the enclosures offer a bounty of scents, tastes, smells and toys.

To ensure that our sanctuaries provide a safe environment that challenges the bears to stretch, climb and behave as normally as possible despite their disabilities, we furnish the enclosures with various types of specially designed structures.

Through an integrated programme of veterinary and behavioural management and daily observation of the bears’ behaviour, we are able to evaluate the bears’ needs and make regular improvements to our facilities. The results have been remarkable and heart warming. Our bears enjoy a large amount of control over their environment – and their individual personalities shine.

Education and research

Besides serving to rehabilitate and care for rescued bears, both of our sanctuaries act as a focal point for education and research, helping to raise awareness about the bear bile farming industry, the impact of bile farming on the health of farmed bears the potential risks of using contaminated bile, the herbal and synthetic alternatives to bear bile, and the conservation and welfare needs of bears in the wild and in captivity.


Before our rescue centres opened, very little research had been done on the physiology and behaviour of Asiatic black bears. Today, our behavioural management and vet teams are producing papers and sharing information and experience at international scientific and animal behaviour conferences.

To confirm the cruelty of the bear bile industry – and combat claims made by bile farmers that conditions have improved and that bears no longer suffer on farms – our veterinary teams work with pathologists and traditional medicine practitioners to compile concrete, scientific data as evidence that bear bile is dangerous to human health and devastating to the pathology of the bears. Research by our team has shown, for example, that 33 per cent of farmed bears develop liver cancer, compared with just 10 per cent of bears in captivity who have never had their bile extracted. Our teams have also documented the high level of contaminants in the bile from farmed bears including urine, faeces, pus, blood and cancer cells – and the risks that contaminated bile poses to consumers.

Through daily monitoring by our bear workers and detailed record keeping by our bear managers – supported by visiting research students and volunteers – important information about the bears’ appetites, activity, seasonal behaviour, sleeping habits, enrichment preferences and their interaction with other bears is constantly being collated. This has enabled us to develop unique enrichment programmes and produce reports and guides on bear behaviour, bear sanctuary management, cub care and socialisation.

Public education

Although neither of our sanctuaries are officially open to the public, both offer guided tours twice a month for supporters. The Chengdu sanctuary also welcomes large numbers of students of all ages for day visits and summer camps, and in recent years has also hosted major international and Chinese media crews and photographers on site.

In 2013, a specially designed education centre will replace the education classroom at the Chengdu centre. Eventually we hope to also establish an education centre at the sanctuary in Vietnam.

As part of our work to build awareness of the cruelty involved in bear bile farming and to discourage the use of bear bile products, the team at our China sanctuary has developed educational programmes on animal welfare and environmental issues. These programmes are promoted through off-site educational work, including workshops and presentations for veterinary students and the staff of zoos and animal parks, as well as for students and practitioners of traditional medicine. Similar programmes are also being developed in Vietnam.