In June this year I went to Chengdu to see some bears. China seems a very long way to go to see some bears, but these were not just any old bears. They were Asiatic black bears, rescued from cruel bile farms by Animals Asia, and given the freedom to walk, and to explore. They can lie in the sun, dig in rain puddles and feel the earth and grass beneath their feet in a safe, semi-natural environment with rehabilitation areas and bamboo forest enclosures.
Asiatic black bears are affectionately called Moon Bears because of the beautiful yellow crescent moon found on their chests. In countries across Asia, thousands of bears live a life of torture on bear farms, so that their bile can be extracted and used in traditional medicine to cure ailments ranging from headaches to haemorrhoids. Bears are confined in cages which vary from agonisingly tiny "crush" cages to larger pens, all of which cause terrible physical and mental suffering.
Watching the rescued bears play you could be forgiven for forgetting what they have gone through. They are now happy, healthy and contented bears. But look closely and you can still see their physical scars. Some have missing limbs. Others have bald lines where the metal jackets, snares and bars have cut into them for years. Some are blind and nearly all have many missing teeth - teeth that have either been knocked out or cut down by the bile farmer or just worn down on the cage bars by the bears in their desperation.
It is a testament to Animals Asia that few show any lasting mental problems from their torture. They are give constant and patient care and allowed to play in large green enclosures. They have swings, hammocks, trees and climbing frames to explore. Each day their food is prepared and placed in new places or in new toys so that they can search it out. Even the the way the water from waterfalls cascades into their ponds is varied each day. No two days are the same for them.
When we arrived at the sanctuary I had no idea of how powerful an effect the place would have on me. One of the first bears I met was Oliver. Oliver is a brown bear who has become a bit of a poster bear for the sanctuary. He spent thirty years incarcerated, growing up in a crate, resulting in many health problems including stunted legs. Just seeing him reduced me to tears. First because of his terrible injuries. Then tears of joy because he is now spending the life he has left in peace and freedom, being well cared for and well-loved by all who know him.
Sadly, not all the rescued bears make it. For some the kindest thing to do is to euthanize them to put them out of their pain and suffering. They are buried with love and dignity by the river in the sanctuary cemetery. A walk through a bamboo forest brings you to this haven, a very moving and peaceful place where white butterflies dance amongst small mounds of earth topped with simple wooden crosses. Each mound has a stone carrying the bear’s name and the day it died. I found myself wandering into this place several times during our stay. Each time it would bring tears to my eyes and yet I also found it to be so beautiful.
The most uplifting part of my journey was learning that this is a battle that can be won. 361 bears have been rescued. 43 farms have been closed. And 20 out 31 Chinese provinces are now free of bear farms. The tide is changing. A majority of the Chinese people are now also calling for bear farming to stop and, most importantly, the Chinese government is sympathetic.
The rescued bears need a lifetime of commitment and constant support. Animals Asia is one of only two animal charities that actually own and run their own sanctuaries. The rescued bears are a lifetime commitment and need constant support. I hope from reading this you will be inspired to find out more about Animals Asia and maybe visit the sanctuary yourself.
Make sure you say hello to Oliver for me.
Suzie Marsh is a sculptor and, along with wildlife artist Richard Symonds, will be holding an exhibition in 2012 to raise funds for Animal Asia. For more details visit Suzie's website. To learn more about Animal Asia and how you can help visit www.animalsasia.org.
Sign up today for free and be the first to get notified of new articles, new competitions, new events and more!