5 Endangered Bears Rescued from Vietnam Bile Farm Travel to Sanctuary After 13 Years in Cages
Moon bears (also known as Asiatic black bears) are a medium-sized, white-chested bear species native to Asia. More than 10,000 Asian bears, including sun bears and brown bears, are kept in awful conditions on bear bile farms throughout the continent. Regularly subjected to cruel extractions for their bile, which is used in traditional medicines, these majestic animals are condemned to a lifetime of suffering.
On Aug. 27, 2018, five endangerd moon bears were rescued by the nonprofit Animals Asia from a bile farm in Vietnam. Kim, Mai, Star, Mekong and LeBON (yes, named for the Duran Duran star) had been trapped in cages for approximately 13 years.
Thanks to Animals Asia, these representatives of the species — which is listed as vulnerable by the IUCN and endangered by CITES — have finally begun their long-awaited journey to freedom. The survivors will relocate to Animals Asia's Vietnam Bear Rescue Centre, a sanctuary in Tam Dao National Park, Vietnam. It's about a 2-hour drive from Hanoi.
At right, a moon bear named Mai awaits rescue in her bile farm cell. She was brought to this place as a youngster, and this tiny cage is all that she has known since then.
Animals Asia had to cut through rusty cages to free the five bears who were held on the farm. Tuan Bendixsen, the director of Animals Asia Vietnam, spoke to PEOPLE about the bear rescue mission.
"When we arrived ... the farmer explained to us that he'd had the bears on the farm for 21 years. We've since had a look at the bears, and our vets have done a thorough health check and examined their microchip and government registration information," Bendixsen tells PEOPLE.
"We've [since] learned ... their ages are younger than what we were initially told: in the 14-15 year range, with the oldest at 18 years. This is great news, as there is now good potential for the bears to spend even more years than originally expected living life happily at our rescue centre."
Bears held on bile farms typically have severe dental problems due to being fed a poor diet, and from biting cage bars in frustration.
"Bears kept on farms often engage in bar biting and head rubbing against the steel bars. One of the bears has cataracts and is almost blind, and another has cloudy eyes," says Bendixen. "One of the bears is missing half of her tongue — the result of an altercation with the bear in the adjoining cage."
Upon rescue, four out of five bears were suffering from fractured canines. Two bears also have rub marks on their heads, indicative of the severe boredom these animals suffered while being locked up in cages for years with nothing else to do. Most of the bears are in poor psychological condition.
Each bear will soon receive a thorough checkup, under anaesthetic, to help identify major health issues, such as liver or gall bladder damage from the bile extractions.
Here, Animals Asia Senior Veterinarian Mandala Hunter performs a health check on Kim with the assistance of Animals Asia Vet Nurse Kat Donald.
Kim gazes out of her bile farm cage as rescuers prepare to remove her from it, once and for all. She has likely been locked in this exact spot since she was a cub, probably 1 or 2 years old.
"Most of the bears started to 'stereotype' (repeat behaviors that have no goal or function) with repetitive head swings from side to side when we were present, which indicates that the bears are stressed by the company of humans," Bendixsen tells PEOPLE.
Often, once the bears reach the sanctuary, they begin to trust their carergivers, and stereotypic behaviors can resolve.
The presence of humans stresses the bears out at first. At right, Star is active as Animals Asia prepares to remove him from his rusty cage.
"Most of the bears showed some level of stress while being transported," says Bendixsen. "They don't realize what is happening to them, since they have spent all their lives in the cages ... We tried to reduce the stress by offering them sweets, such as dried fruits to calm them down and to earn their trust."
Seen here in his transport cage, LeBON embarks on his first major step to freedom outside the bile farm.
On bile farms, the bears are sedated using an anesthetic. Some farms use veterinarians, but most do it themselves to reduce costs. Once the bear is sedated, the farmer ties it down just in case they didn't administer enough anesthetic.
Next, they try to locate the gallbladder using an ultrasound machine, then puncture the stomach area with a 6-inch needle to reach the gallbladder. Since these farmers aren't experienced in either reading ultrasound images or bile extractions, it can take 10 or more repeated stabbings before they even find the gallbladder. Sometimes they lick the end of the needle (which is unsterile and can cause infection) to see if it's bitter, because bile is a bitter liquid inside the gallbladder.
Upon finding the gallbladder, the farmers connect a rubber tube to one end of the needle and pump out the bile. The whole process can take up to an hour, and around 100ml of bile is extracted each time. If the demand is high, or if the farm doesn’t have many bears to extract from, one bear can go through multiple bile extractions within a short period of time.
The bile extraction causes much damage to the bears' liver and gallbladder, since to reach the gallbladder the needle must also travel through the liver. Unsurprisingly, damage to the gallbladder and scarring of the liver is a frequent consequence of harvesting bear bile.
As the bears await rescue, the Animals Asia team offers Mekong and the others sweet treats, most likely for the first time in their lives.
The farmer in charge of this bile farm also owns an animal feed factory, which means the bears were fed animal feed powder as their staple diet. This is a terrible diet, as they don't get the pleasure of chewing when eating and they can't clean their teeth with [twigs, leaves, shoots, etc.]; it's the reason why the majority of farmed bears have such bad teeth.
"At Animals Asia's bear sanctuary, bears are fed a mixture of fruits and vegetables such as sweet potatoes, tomatoes, carrots, and cabbage. They also get jackfruit leaves and branches. Overall, they're fed approximately 5kg of fruits and vegetables per day, plus 200-300g of dry dog food to provide extra protein, vitamins and minerals. They also have free access to clean water," says Bendixsen.
On the bile farm, the only ways the bears interact with each other is through the bars of their cages. They aren't allowed the opportunity to just be a "normal bear" on a farm because the environment doesn't allow for normal behavior, which would include foraging for food, climbing, and splashing in the water.
At the Animals Asia sanctuary, the bears are introduced to "browse" for the first time, which is when they naturally feed on leaves, soft shoots, or fruits of high-growing, generally woody, plants such as shrubs.
"We have already seen them begin to be bears, with the introduction of browse during their trip home. The bears began to nest a bit with the browse, and chew it. While en route to the sanctuary, they also began enjoying fresh fruits such as watermelon and apples," Bendixsen reports.
Here, an Animals Asia staff member offers Star a sweet treat for comfort and to let him know that he is in caring hands now.
Once in her transport cage, with some browse for comfort and chewing, Kim is gently lifted onto Animals Asia’s truck that will take her to her new home.
Once the bears are in the transport cages, it is not long before they are gently loaded onto Animals Asia’s truck to begin their journey.
Animals Asia is working on a detailed plan for moving all of the bears on farms in Vietnam to a sanctuary, pending government approval.
"The process will take time, and when the plan is approved and ready for implementation, we still need to raise the necessary funding to build new sanctuaries," says Bendixsen.
During the 4-day journey to the Vietnam Bear Rescue Centre, the Animals Asia team made frequent stops to feed the bears. They were offered cooling showers and browse, such as banana leaves, for the bears to nest in and chew on.
The 2017 agreement Animals Asia signed with the Vietnamese government is to remove all of the bears from farms by 2022. They commited to moving the 800 bears who remain on farms in Vietnam to new sanctuaries.
Kim puts a paw up to the rusty bars of her cage shortly before she is finally taken out of it, then prepared to be moved to Animals Asia’s sanctuary in Tam Dao National Park.
After a 1,050 mile drive, that took four days to complete, the truck arrived at the sanctuary on Aug. 31.
"We've managed to save five more bears from a lifetime of cruelty and misery, and give them the freedom they deserve. Every bear we manage to save means we are a small step closer to ending bear bile farming for good in Vietnam," says Bendixsen.