Thursday, 1 July 2010: And so they came – the first small group of bears finally rescued from one of the brutal illegal bile farms dotted around the beautiful area of Ha Long Bay in Vietnam.
These five bears form part of a group of 24 on one farm from which we had previously obtained undercover evidence that they were being illegally milked for their bile. They are also part of the original bigger group of 80 bears discovered to be kept illegally on farms around Ha Long Bay, for which we recently ran a letter-writing campaign, collecting a phenomenal 7,000 individual letters from supporters for presentation to the Vietnam government.
The bears are kept in small concrete cells with room to pace only.
Vietnam Director Tuan has steered this campaign for almost three years, negotiating with the government, gaining support from Environment Nature Vietnam (ENV), Free the Bears, Wildlife at Risk (WAR), and the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA), and never giving up on securing the release of these bears.
With additional support from 13 foreign embassies in Vietnam, the Vietnam government finally pushed forward and last week, called to let us know we could expect the first group of confiscated bears.
The rescue operation was planned and carried out by the Central Forestry Protection Department (FPD) and Vietnam's Environmental Police (EP) under a veil of strict confidentiality. In order to avoid any risk of confrontation, our bear workers – on hand and responsible for the removal and care of the bears – kept their Animals Asia Foundation uniforms under wraps. After a tense rescue operation, and a five-hour trip escorted by both the FPD and EP, the bears arrived safely at the rescue centre.
Some of the bears displayed signs of malnutrition, while others are physically and psychologically compromised. One bear is missing a front limb and others have head scars, broken teeth and severely cracked paws. All will need their damaged gall bladders removed.
Animals Asia Founder, Jill Robinson, was in Vietnam for the arrival of the bears:
“The feeling, as ever, was indescribable – with goosebumps and shivers of excitement all round. After a journey of roughly five hours, the bears were finally at our door. All were surprisingly calm on arrival, with not a "huff" to be heard, (although the female was a little distressed and stereotypic). Four boys, one girl, and another clear example of an ongoing illegal trade with one clearly caught in the wild.
First off the truck was the little girl - nicknamed PJ - our only female and currently the most stressed of all. She is a slim and anxious bear, who will need lots of reassurance as the days go on.
Next was Halong – with badly hyperkeratotic feet (dry, cracked and painful from never walking on solid ground), but a calm, inquisitive lad who invented the game of "rub my head in my food bowl" the second he was fed.
Rolling off the truck next was Max - with long gangly limbs and wounds on his head. He too had hyperkeratotic food pads - with chunks of flesh sloughing off the bottom, and presumably painful, but it seemed that his biggest challenge was getting the hang of his own legs. Bear Manager Charlie said he reminded him of a baby deer - and as Max tried to stand, knocking his knees together, I think Charlie had a point. Poor Max also has the right side of his crescent moon missing.
Next was Stanley - another male and a string bean body, long and lean. Stanley has his tongue perpetually hanging out, very dog like, and it remains to be seen if this is a problem as he settles in to Tam Dao.
The bears are moved into the quarantine area for observation.
And last but definitely not least – a male - missing his entire front right limb at the shoulder and, with his curious stance, kind face, and sultry brown eyes, straight away reminding me of Andrew so many years ago in Chengdu. The name was obvious, our Vietnam Andrew – or Vandrew! Only the wounds on his head from bar rubbing gave away his trauma on the farm, which will hopefully disappear soon.
No words, as always, for the Vet and Bear Teams who prepared for, and offloaded our new family effortlessly into Quarantine, and our Admin, Security, Maintenance, External Affairs and Education staff who assisted Tuan with all the last minute preparation work and so skillfully guided them in.”
The Animals Asia's bear team wait to remove the first anaesthetised bear from its cell.
Each bear is carried with care to the truck and gently loaded into a transport cage.
On awakening in their transport cages, the bears are given fresh fruit for the road home.
To provide security, Environmental Police and Central FPD escort the trucks to Tam Dao.
Jill welcomes members of the Environmental Police and Central FPD to the rescue centre.
Jill, bear manager Pernille, vet Kirsty and admin officer Thao check and record each bear.