Nanning - "It was never a dream"

On 15th May 2013 Boris (our Founding Director) and Nic (our former Bear and Vet Team Director, and I visited the Nanning bear bile farm in Guangxi Province to carry out a recce and report back to the team.  Little did we dream then that it would take 8 long years to finally be bringing over 100 bears home to our sanctuary in Chengdu, involving the entire organisation in a journey of unparalleled complication and frustration. This is tenacity in action.

Mr Yan, the manager of the bear farm, had contacted Animals Asia all those years ago after taking over ownership of the horticulture centre which included a bear bile farm on site. As a devout Buddhist, Mr Yan was disturbed, as he felt that the bears on the farm were suffering, and believed that the future prospect for bear farming was grim.  He also had a young animal-loving daughter who told him that she thought the bears needed help. And so he got in touch with us.

After a fact finding trip to our sanctuary in Chengdu, Mr Yan later added:

"We visited the Animals Asia’s China Bear Rescue Centre in Chengdu. The centre provides comfortable shelters and a living area simulating a natural environment for bears, where they can have abundant and delicious food, and clean and spacious dens. The welfare level in the centre for bears has confirmed our plan to work with Animals Asia. We believe the future for the bears would be improved by working with Animals Asia".

The ripple of excitement within the organisation was palpable as the thought of working within the industry to help what were then 132 bears was an exciting prospect, and so an ambitious plan evolved to convert an ex bear bile farm, and build our second sanctuary in China to help and house both cubs and adult bears.

However, as our investigative trips to the farm increased, so too did the complications, after facing almost impossible odds when other developers began taking over the entire horticulture centre, including the bear farm. 

Hence, plan b) evolved where we negotiated instead to bring all the bears to our sanctuary in Chengdu and absorb them into our current population of bears.  From there, we sent teams to work on site at the bear farm to help the bears in the short term, while beginning the exhaustive task of obtaining the permits to transfer the bears to Chengdu. 

At this point there is absolutely nothing to be gained by going chapter and verse into the hurdles we faced, except to say that it has been one of the most stressful periods of the organisation's history to date.

Nic saw more than her fair share of grey hairs during those years as she led our increasingly stretched teams to both help the Nanning bears and continue with "business as usual" at our sanctuary in Chengdu. 

For the first time in their lives, the bears were enjoying fresh fruit and veg, treated for a myriad of painful conditions and given toys to play with too.

The cages they were contained in were opened out to tiny "yards" that were scrubbed and cleaned and ultimately fitted out with paddling pools or hammocks, greatly enhancing their quality of life. In those early days I always likened working conditions to a scene out of the war series, M.A.S.H as a hastily created field hospital was created in nearly 40 degree heat. Memories flood back as team after remarkable team rigged up a surgery to perform dentals on bears with hideously broken teeth, or removed damaged and painful eyes, or embarked on major abdominal surgery for bears ravaged with complications owing to the cruel extraction of their bile. Again we won't look back on those days that are forever embedded in our hearts and our minds, but they remind me of that familiar saying that what doesn't kill you makes you stronger, and they changed us....every single one.

Media, supporters and celebrities sometimes visited  - and one of the highlights must undoubtedly go to Downton Abbey's Mrs Patmore, the wonderful Lesley Nicol.  Lesley had already visited our sanctuary in Chengdu and was now smitten with the bears and the teams who cared for them.  That love was returned one hundred fold as Lesley discovered that Downton Abbey was also widely viewed in China, with approximately 160 million viewers tuning in to this popular period drama.

Our village of staff loved her, and later her visit to Nanning saw her rolling up her sleeves and offering any help needed during the days she joined us all on site. She hosed down wilting bears, fanned our hot and exhausted veterinary team and lifted everyone's spirits with kindness, jokes and even songs. One memorable day I saw her in the middle of one of the sheds as she was spraying her bear; a very hot but contented Pickle Nicol, with cooling water, and singing "Take a Chance on Me", in a nod to Lesley's previously starring role in the West End show of ABBA.

Several years later, Nic had left to start her own organisation, Global Animal Welfare together with our former Vietnam Bear and Vet Team Director, Annemarie, and now we had Ryan at the helm of the team. It's impossible to articulate those days too, and the extraordinary stress and workload that Ryan and the entire team took on their shoulders - our remarkable vets, bear managers, and carers alike, again, too many to mention by name, but heroes every one. Christmases would be celebrated by Ryan and every carer who drew strawberry sauce "art" on the walls of the tiny dens, and laid out jam tarts or wrapped gifts, allowing the gleeful bears to enjoy some festive enrichment cheer. Besides the toys, and paddling pools and hammocks, many of them now had a newly integrated friend to play with and share the days, the months, the years as the negotiations to move them went on.  All this again with teams flying back and forth, living in hardship environments while doing all they could to keep the bears as contented as they could under such bleak yet immeasurably improved conditions.

In fairness, to say that asking to move over 100 bears 1,250 kms through several provinces is an unusual request is quite the understatement. What we were asking to do was completely unprecedented and yet the authorities pulled out so many stops to help us during this time. We have been rescuing bears and carrying out operations since 1994, but neither we nor any other animal welfare organisation had done anything on this scale before. Moving over 100 bears across the country could be one the most epic tasks any organisation could dare to undertake.

But I knew that we were here to make the world a better place for the ease their suffering and show an example of kinder days for the rest of their lives. Therefore it was inevitable to rise to this challenge.

Finally, at the end of 2019 the permits to take the bears back to Chengdu were almost signed and sealed, and we were hopeful that the rescue was just a few weeks away. And then COVID broke out.  Unbelievably, from that point on, everything involving the transport of wild animals in China ceased and we were back to square one.  To say that poor Ryan and the entire team were deflated and pretty much on their knees with grief and frustration is an understatement, as the thought of carrying on there with a skeleton staff (owing to travel restrictions) was now the reality of an impossible workload of caring for the bears. 

But this heroic team prevailed. Despite moments of deep and utter despair - and especially now that I too was "trapped" in Hong Kong and unable to have face to face talks, or even hugs, with the team, and also that the entire organisation was "on hold" over COVID, Ryan and team battled on against incredible odds.

Meanwhile Boris continued to push on for the permits too, and enlisted the help of an old friend, remarkably called "Bear", who had experience of government negotiation in his previous roles. It has to be said that while morale and hope were at an all time low, Boris and Bear were focused with laser precision on the end goal of the permits and never once lost their resolve.  it seemed that every week another twist and turn emerged where first one permit was granted, but another refused, entailing yet one more flight by Boris and Bear to meet up with Nanning or Guangxi officials, or heading over for the hundredth time to the forestry offices of Sichuan. Once again, this was an unprecedented "ask" and we were calling on often patient officials to sign off on something that was as complicated as it was lengthy to complete.  Our thanks to them for their patience and guidance throughout this time too.

And so it went on. Until Friday April 9 at 428pm, when Boris called Ryan and I on skype and, with a smile as wide as China, put the final signed permit up to the camera to prove that we finally had permission to bring our bears home.

The rest as they say is history and the preparation and focus now was for Ryan, Boris and a whole village of staff in Chengdu and Nanning to organise the three trips by road...home.

These last few weeks have been sensational - and sensationally hard.  The first group of 36 bears were moved from Monday April 19, with the second group also of 36 bears moved from May 10, and the final group of 29 bears moved from May 25.  Every trip was meticulously planned by Ryan and team - with scaffolding and fork lifts to maneuver the bears gently and safely from their farm cages to our transport cages and ready for the long journey by road.  The move began around 8am when the bears were loaded, and finished two days later when 9 trucks on the first two journeys and 7 trucks on the final phase drove through the sanctuary gates at around 3am. No hotel stops for sleep for our heroic team - just cat naps in the coach/support vehicles, and food snatched along the way, as around 50 exhausting hours evolved for each trip.

One of our Bear Team Managers, Feng Min, was among the first staff to be working in Nanning in 2014 and wanted to be the last one out.  And so she was, as she and Ryan and Boris and Molly and others in the team closed those rusting doors of the bear sheds for the very last time. That moment, together with the glorious sight of the convoy of trucks rolling into the sanctuary with our consignment of bears safe will be etched into my grateful memory and heart forever. Still unable to be with the team owing to COVID restrictions, we had conversations or texts constantly throughout the days and nights on the road.  But the final call with Boris after that final truck arrived home will never leave me.  I'd begun speaking about the dream we had together in 2013 to help those bears, to hear his calm, kind and ever pragmatic words in response that: "It was never a dream, it was just unfinished business."

No-one will ever comprehend the fear, the desperation and the frustration that this project has caused over these past 8 years. Despite indescribable stress on their shoulders Nic, then Ryan and our team have kept the faith and kept their resolve, and kept on keeping on when hopelessness prevailed.  Today,  their relief in finally bring the bears home is palpable - and has rippled across the organisation worldwide - with every single staff member so deeply invested in this journey too, now elated to be seeing the bears finally with us in Chengdu.

I sometimes look back and wonder whether we should have embarked on this mission.  But the answer has always been the same - an emphatic yes, for too many reasons to mention, not least that we were given the opportunity to give bears their days in the sun - and how could we ever turn away from that.

Today, they have rewarded us a thousand times over. To see bears we thought we knew, now behaving in ways that demonstrate their long dormant senses awakened, is a miracle to witness.  Bärack, with his nerve damaged and sticky-out tongue, and his disabled back legs, now throwing himself into clumsy roly poly's in the grass is heart stoppingly poignant.  Pickle Nicol clambering precipitously high in her den to get a good nosy look at her new neighbours and sliding clumsily down into an ocean of straw, that then sees her throwing it high into the air with excitement, or others having a "zoomie" in the sun drenched enclosure as something in their opening hearts tells them that they're free.   Without even knowing it, their arrival will keep our sanctuary operational too for at least the next 20 years. Because of them, we can redouble our efforts to work with the authorities in China in critical programs of bear protection and rescue.

Devastatingly, one special bear, Coconut, died suddenly five weeks after she arrived in the first group of bears.  Shocking everyone to the core with the sudden trauma of the loss, the post mortem showed a large blood clot on her brain, with nothing that could have been done to detect it until the day she slipped away. Tragically unfair, after she had been giddy with happiness to be out playing on the grass, and just when she and sweet Bärack had shown such beautiful signs of a new friendship in their River House of kindness and love.

This beautiful bear was buried in our garden of rest - the first bear from Nanning to be buried in Chengdu and now symbolising the other 31 bears left behind who sadly never enjoyed their final years of sanctuary with the family who loved them and set them "free".

Our gratitude to all of our supporters and friends worldwide who stayed with us in faith and confidence over these 8 long years. You must know too well the relief and happiness to be sharing this final chapter of the story with you all, and to have welcomed 101 ecstatically happy bears...... home.

Read more:

Animals Asia brings 101 bears home in largest ever operation of its kind