Maria Slough shares her life-changing experiences living amongst the rescued moon bears of China
My time with the rescued moon bears at the Animals Asia China Bear Rescue Centre in Chengdu has altered me. I am changed as a person in a way that I have yet to fully understand. Tears are rolling down my cheeks at the thought of leaving my new found furry friends behind.
There are so many moments to recall: the view from my room; the occasional vocalisation of a bear; watching them play; watching them sleep; Jasper’s journey, a bear now so trusting; and witnessing his health check and the touching reaction of his playmates mourning his absence for the 24 hours he was in the medical wing.
From the moment you arrive at Animal Asia’s sanctuary you can tell this is a special place. A solitary cage stands on a plinth, its door open, symbolic of everything that Animals Asia has achieved and represents moving forward: freedom for these bears from a life of torture.
Just to the left is a pathway to a herb garden like no other. Here, an array of herbs are grown for use in Chinese herbal medicine, proof that in the 21st century there are over 50 herbal alternatives (and some synthetic ones) to the cruelty of bile extraction.
At the end of the path lies the garden of Hope and Remembrance. Over 100 bears are remembered here. Chengdu Truth, whose little body was so savaged by a life of torture in a crush cage and the agony of an eternity of bile extraction that he lived only a few hours after his rescue, is just one of the bears honoured.
As you stand at the foot of a 30 ft sculpture of ‘Andrew’ – the first bear ever rescued – you cannot help but feel dwarfed by the enormity of what has happened here, and what is still yet to be done.
The lucky ones
Yet the rescued bears here are the lucky few. Thousands of black Asiatic bears, known as moon bears because of the crescent shaped fur moon emblazoned across their chests, are today imprisoned in bile farms across China and Vietnam. Imprisoned in tiny cages for up to 30 years, and allowed only the most basic food and water, the bears are unable to stand or move in any direction. This depraved cruelty is exacerbated by the daily extraction of their bile for use in traditional Asian medicines.
It was 1993 when Jill Robinson rescued her first bear while working with the IFAW (The International Fund for Animal Welfare). She went on to establish Animals Asia and the Chengdu sanctuary was opened in 2000 after an agreement with various government agencies, including the Sichuan Forestry Department and the China Wildlife Conservation Association in Beijing, to work together to rescue 500 bears from bile farms.
In 2008, the gates opened to a Vietnamese sanctuary where 120 bears have been rescued, 112 of which are still living.
This year saw the revolutionary ‘Peace by Piece’ project at Nanning where a former bile farm with 130 bears is being transformed into a sanctuary for the bears to live out their lives as part of a historic incentive initiated by the bear farm operator himself.
There is an expertly structured daily routine for the 170 plus staff members at Chengdu who work tirelessly to take care of the 134 bears.
Experts in veterinary care and animal management from the western world gather to work alongside local men and women from the surrounding villages, who make up departments of bear management, horticulture, cleaning, feeding, cooking and administration who are bussed in daily and who are, through their contact with the bears, learning to appreciate animal welfare.
While the workers, many of whom live on site, wake early to prepare breakfast in the Bear Kitchen, most of the bears are snoozing in their dens. The carers then hide the freshly prepared feed including carrots and apples inside specially carved trees, log piles, platforms and bamboo feeders, and when the bell goes the bears come out to forage. This system is designed to stimulate and exercise the bears and is changed daily to continually challenge the bears and avoid any boredom or dominance issues arising.
Taken from March/April 2015 (Issue 4) Vegan Life Magazine