02/21/2013 03:22 pm ET Updated Apr 23, 2013

Beginning a New Life: Six Endangered Bears Rescued From Illegal Chinese Farm

In January six endangered moon bears arrived at Animals Asia's peaceful China sanctuary, finally finding freedom after years spent trapped in tiny cages and painfully farmed for their bile on an illegal bear bile farm in Sichuan province. The rescue was a joint effort between Animals Asia and our government partners, the Sichuan Forestry Department, which has shut the farm down.

Now named Mac, Peter, Xuan Xuan, Katie, Shamrock, and Buddha, these bears will never have to suffer the excruciating existence they endured on the bile farm again.

More than 10,000 bears -- mainly moon bears, but also sun bears and brown bears -- are kept on bile farms in China, and around 2,400 in Vietnam. The bears are milked regularly for their bile, which is used in traditional medicine.

Bile is extracted from the bears' gallbladders using various painful, invasive techniques, all of which cause massive infection and, ultimately, a painful death for the bears. This cruel practice continues despite the availability of a large number of herbal and synthetic alternatives.

Most bears on bile farms are kept in tiny cages. Of the six rescued last month, Peter was trapped in the smallest cage -- measuring just 3 feet long and one foot wide. Some bears on farms are put into cages as cubs and never released. Bears may be kept incarcerated like this for their entire lives, up to 30 years. The majority of farmed bears are starved, dehydrated, and suffer from multiple diseases and malignant tumors that ultimately kill them. The recently rescued bears, who were quickly anesthetized and removed from their farm cages upon arrival at the sanctuary, soon received health checks to evaluate the extent of the damage.

The bears arrived in a desperate state, frightened and aggressive, with wounds common to bears rescued from bile farms. We saw facial scarring, obviously caused by repetitive behavior of banging their heads against bars (psychological effects of their incarceration) and their teeth were almost universally damaged from frantic bar biting or literally trying to chew their way out. The paws were all in a terrible state due to poor diet and dehydration and having to stand day-in, day-out on the bars of their cages, for years -- painfully cracked and dry, with claws that had grown unnaturally long.

Health checks revealed even more damage caused by the bile extraction process, and vets and nurses have been kept busy with logging and updating the problems and prioritizing them for urgent intervention. Thankfully, now that they are at our sanctuary, the bears are receiving the best possible veterinary care, and beginning the slow and steady road to recovery.

Of most concern, upon the bears' arrival, was Xuan Xuan. An examination showed her to be leaking bile and suffering arthritis, with badly cracked and dehydrated footpads and shattered, rotten teeth. She and the other bears were quickly scheduled for surgery to remove their gallbladders, which were damaged and diseased from years of bile extraction.

It's hard to imagine, not just the confinement, but also the sheer pain Mac, Peter, Xuan Xuan, Katie, Shamrock, and Buddha were enduring day by day. As each recovered from surgery, and was thoroughly spoiled by our dedicated staff, you could witness them slowly recovering from their fear and trauma and see their personalities starting to shine through.

In order to smooth their transition, the bears have been moved into straw-lined recovery cages. Following a period of quarantine, they will be transferred into dens, before gradually being integrated with other bears, and finally being given access to large outdoor enclosures. This happens over a period of several months, and in the meantime our staff works hard to ensure that an "enrichment" process takes place, with each bear introduced to a veritable smorgasbord of tasty food, novel toys, and even music played on a regular basis. These are our "broken bears" -- drained and exploited by the bear farming industry -- and only time will tell if we can mend them and provide them with the lives they deserve. The signs look good. After only a few days at the sanctuary, they began to calm, showing increasing trust and curiosity and perhaps even understanding that they were out of harm's way. Day by day, their characters began to bloom, and they indulged even more in the delicious treats and other nourishing foods given to them.

Only good things await Mac, Peter, Xuan Xuan, Katie, Shamrock, and Buddha -- free access to food and water, friendly interaction with newfound friends, the lazy dilemma of how to spend each new day, and freedom simply to play, swim, and snooze as they choose.

For the staff of Animals Asia, we celebrate this rescue as another major step forward in our work towards ending bear bile farming once and for all.