Arriving in Nanning, China to begin three days of emergency health checks on bears living on a former bear bile farm, we looked up at the sky, greeted by a beautiful crescent moon. A good sign considering we were on our way to help endangered moon bears, so called because of the lemon-colored crescent of fur upon their chests.
Every one of us was apprehensive. This was field work in the raw, where six bears were going to be anesthetized and examined -- undergoing procedures to remove pain they had been suffering for years.
These were the first six of 130 bears previously held in cages with their bile cruelly extracted, or brought in as breeding bears, on one of China's notorious bear bile farms. In an astonishing act of compassion last year, Mr. Yan, the bear farmer, had contacted government officials saying that bear farming was "cruel and hopeless," and wanted to give up his farm and find a good home for the bears. The officials suggested that he work with Animals Asia, and so Mr. Yan and his staff came to visit our bear rescue center in Chengdu, China. Here, to date, we have rescued 285 bears, while our other sanctuary in Tam Dao National Park, Vietnam, has rescued 118 bears from the bear bile industry.
From there we spoke with Mr. Yan about the potential of converting his farm into a sanctuary. By doing this, we could show a win-win solution to the Chinese public that bears, farmers and the country can benefit from turning a cruel and unnecessary industry around, into one that celebrates this charismatic species of bears for their own sake, rather than how they can "benefit" humankind.
While this would be an expensive campaign to take on (we are desperately trying to raise $5 million in the next three years) we also know that Mr. Yan could have sold his bears for far more money to other farms. Furthermore, this bear farmer had the integrity to stand up at our Beijing press conference in April, stating his reasons for leaving the industry and relinquishing his bears from their pain.
Preparing a dirty bear farm room for medical procedures was no easy feat, but before long, it was looking something like a field surgery out of MASH.
Vet Jen, and nurses Wendy and Vicki quietly began preparing to anesthetize a bear we named Delilah. Worryingly, Delilah stopped breathing a few minutes after the anesthetic took hold. However, our well-prepared vet team were able to resuscitate her after a few minutes, and Delilah was breathing again and stabilized for her health check.
Delilah had been through years of trauma. A large scar close to her jugular, and prominent nipples, indicated that she may have been one of the farms "breeding" bears and caught up in a fight during the breeding season. She may also have been a bile extraction bear -- and with three shattered teeth to remove, it was clear that she had spent a long time in a cage, frantically biting the bars as so many do, before eventually breaking her own teeth.
Over the next three days, six bears had health checks - all of them requiring multiple damaged teeth removed, with some, like Pickle Nicol (Lovingly named by Downton Abbey's Mrs. Patmore, Lesley Nicol) had them deliberately cut back to gum level.
Pickle had also been "de-clawed," with the removal of her paw tips. Many of our rescued bears have been a victim of this cruel procedure -- but their stoic, adaptive nature sees full recovery with them able to survive well, without the use of their claws, or teeth.
Her true colors showing, Pickle playfully slapped her thigh whenever she wanted attention. This became obvious when she was getting a cooling hose down in the heat of the day -- and slapped her thigh if the water stopped, asking for more.
Between smiles, there were many shocking sights. Milly's front paws had been de-clawed, and her back claws were horribly overgrown, with one claw actually puncturing through the pad. Poor Milly's teeth were horrible -- having been cut back to the bone by someone with no medical knowledge at all, with pulp and nerves exposed.
Besides awful teeth and paws, other bears were victims of the "free drip" method -- the only method of bile extraction allowed under Chinese regulations, which sees a fistula (or hole) carved into the bears' abdomens and gallbladders, so that bile can freely drip out. Because of the damage, approximately 20 bears will need their gallbladders eventually removed.
Our vet team carried on -- with temperatures in the 90's -- remaining in the same positions for hours. Jen, suffering from a bad back, endured nine hours of bending over to treat the bears. Three days straight saw the most fantastic effort by our vet team as they worked through seven to nine hour surgical procedures, and then until 11 p.m. at night waiting until the final bear had fully recovered and was standing on all fours.
The relief of the week was that a very thin bear named Galaxy, who was suspected to have inoperable cancer, was pronounced cancer-free (again after having three canine teeth removed) and simply needing plenty of nutritional food.
Today, our team is dramatically improving the bears' diet with a variety of fruits and vegetables they have never enjoyed before. The bears have free access to water, hose showers, and enrichment items such as browse for the adults and younger bears, plus a little climbing frame and plastic bowl paddling pool for our youngest cub, four/five-month-old Smudge.
Mr. Yan the former bear farmer, impressed us deeply when he spent a whole morning watching Galaxy's health check, asking questions and taking pictures.
This is our chance to turn a farm to a sanctuary, working with a bear farmer to change the lives of these bears, and collaborating with the people of China in ending one of the most egregious practices in the world.