Monday, July 6, 2009


Leaving those gorgeous bears was very sad. In just three days, life at Animals Asia Foundation Sanctuary felt like ‘home’. Since flying out of Chengdu, the bears have been constantly on my mind. Some of the photos I saw at the Sanctuary’s Education Centre will haunt me for a long time to come.

Bear incage at a bear bile farm

Seeing all the bears at the sanctuary so well looked after, and in many cases, so content, was delightful and incredibly uplifting. But there are thousands of bears still rotting in cages. Crushed to the ground, unable to move, and tortured daily. It is a life-time sentence unless they can be rescued. Around half China’s moon bear population (10,000) is in bear bile farms.

Cages are stacked closely together at a bear bile farm

Asiatic black bears, known as moon bears because of the beautiful golden crescent on their chests, have been killed for their bile for use in traditional medicine for thousands of years. In the 1980s, it was realised that far more money could be made by caging the bears and ‘milking’ them for their bile. Without any anaesthetic, a steel tube is driven through their stomach into the gall bladder. These bears have no access to water and are deliberately denied adequate food – a hungry bear produces more bile. The bile extraction process causes the bears unimaginable agony.

Limbs are often ripped off in the trapping of bears for bear bile farms

Some farmers slice off the bear's digits to save de-clawing

Bear bile is believed to be good for the liver, muscle spasms, improving vision and clearing toxins. But in reality bear bile is contaminated with pus, blood, tissue and faeces. It is no coincidence that half the bears rescued die from liver cancer. The bears’ livers and gall bladders are often severely diseased.

And this is what people are taking for good health?

AAF is continuing its research to confirm the link between contaminated bile and liver cancer. If this can be proven and it is finally an indisputable fact that taking bear bile will actually endanger your health, then perhaps finally, the proponents of this ‘traditional practice’’ will give it up.

Animals Asia Foundation, depends solely on donations and, like all charitable organisations during these times, is struggling to get sufficient funds to meet its needs. A special care enclosure is being built and more land needs to be cleared for new enclosures so more bears can be rescued. Jill hopes to receive another ‘shipment’ of bears towards the end of this year and needs to have these areas up and running. Each ‘shipment’ represents one more bear bile farm that has been shut down. It is a long, delicate process of negotiation with the Government and with the bear bile farmer. AAF has to compensate the farmer for the loss of his income so they can continue to feed their families but in return for payment, the farmer must shut down the farm, give up all bears and surrender their licence, resulting in permanent closure.

What can you do to help?

This obscenity has to be stopped.

Assisi is luckier than many. He is a relatively young bear – around five years of age. He has suffered hugely in his short life, but his suffering has now ended. He has got a lifetime of freedom to look forward to – however long that is. His days in the sun are coming thanks to all the people who have generously given to the NZ Companion Animal Council / Animals' Voice magazine / SPCA campaign.

Assisi also has to thank one bear for his survival. That one, un-named bear reached out to Jill – literally – back in 1993 and asked for help. It is thanks to that bear, that more than 280 bears have been rescued from hell. It is because of that one bear that many more will see freedom. That anonymous bear never did.

A bear reaching out to Jill for help in 1993

As I sign-off on three unbelievable days of my life I want to thank Jill Robinson, Rainbow, Sailing, Charlie and Hayley, Heather and her amazing team for sharing just a snippet of life at Animals Asia Foundation. It has been a time of immense grief and one of joy and laughter. The team at Animals Asia live with this emotional rollercoaster ride of trauma, grief and joy every day. They are truly amazing.

The next issue of Animals' Voice magazine will carry more stories and pics of my visit.


Sheer happiness... a roll in the grass

Douglas coming to say hello

Saturday, July 4, 2009

A day with Jill Robinson

On site again for breakfast with the bears and to spend the day with Jill Robinson, founder and CEO of Animals Asia Foundation. Finally, she has bee allowed out of her room where she was quarantined for potential swine flu because she was on the same flight and sitting near to a man who was confirmed as having it.

Jill explains about the horrors of bear bile farming to visitors

As we wandered around the sanctuary Jill was clearly delighted to be back with her bears. She knew many of the bears by name and can relay each of their stories. Her passion is relentless and as we wandered past a group of local families here for an Open Day (which happen monthly) she immediately spoke to them about the horrors of bear bile farming and the needless suffering of these beautiful creatures.

Hopefully another group educated and informed about the facts. These are the people who can stop bear bile farming. Many Chinese people are horrified when they are told how the bile is extracted and slowly, with education and awareness, Jill hopes to put a stop to the industry, not only in China but also across Vietnam and South Korea.

We visited the rehabilitation enclosure, which houses the bears that came to the sanctuary last March. It has taken this long, through a very carefully managed programme, to get the bears to a stage where they can leave their dens and play on grass and feel the sun.

Breakfast in the rehabilitation enclosure

But it is not all ‘happy days’ - some of them are still displaying mental stress and behavioural problems, rocking back and forth or pacing. These bears may be physically freed from their past but in some cases, the dreadful experiences they have suffered will stay with them.

Enjoying a back scratch

Relaxing on a sun chair

There are special enclosures for special bears. The disabled enclosure contains bears that have lost a limb due to being trapped and dragged off to a bear bile farm. Some had no teeth because they had worn them down to nothing on the bars of their crush cage - or had them ripped out so the farmer didn’t get hurt. Some had no claws, to save their tormentors from a scratch. In some cases paws are chopped off to save the trouble of trying to remove each claw. Despite being so disfigured at the hands of humans, several of them immediately came right up to the fence to say hello and sat down to watch us.

On to the blind enclosure where bears who had lost their sight because of severe nutritional deficiencies, infection and complications, quietly dozed.

Enjoying a day in the hammock

We stopped at the Graveyard and spent some time in silence, Jill remembering many of her friends who she saved, loved and lost again.

A quiet time of reflection with Jill in the graveyard

A last visit with Assisi who was in great spirits and once again endowed us with his beautiful smile. I look forward to updates on his continuing recovery and the photo of him finally walking on grass for the first time in his life.

Liane hands to Jill the cheque to help pay for Assisi's care

Jill is an inspiration. She started with nothing except a promise to a bear she met in a bear bile farm in 1993. Since then she has achieved so much and will go on fighting for the freedom of these bears until every cage is open and every bear bile farm is destroyed.

An amazing woman and an amazing day. Thank you, Jill.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Appointment with Assisi

After breakfast the moment has come to meet our friend Assisi.


I swear he smiled at us as we walked up to the cage. What a beautiful boy he is. Despite his horrible past and dubious health he is a strong-looking big bear with a shiny black coat and a glorious gold crescent across his chest.
Assisi meets Liane
His paws are massive and I almost wonder whether he has grown into them fully. But after years in a bear bile cage I guess the growing stopped long ago. His enormously sharp claws had never been clipped while he was at the bear bile farm and consequently, they grew back into the pads of his paws, causing infection and incredible pain. But now his paws are healthy and claws manicured.
Instant friendship from a treat !
As I introduce myself he regards me with interest. That interest increases when I produce the chopped apples. Apparently, Assisi is a sucker for sweet things and top of the list is chocolate sauce and honey.

Assisi and Liane
We sat there and I was able to admire him. I just wanted so much to reach out to him and hug him and tell him he is in a good place now. But somehow, I think he knows that. Each day as part of the ‘enrichment programme’ the bears are given treats and stimulated with toys. The enrichments range from dried fruit hidden in bamboo tubes to frozen fruit and juice iceblocks, listening to music – apparently Mozart is a favourite – noisy toys that they can shake, raw hide to chew on and water sprinkled to simulate rain, which they love.


I have been told by the vet nurses and bear managers that Assisi is a gentle, good natured and calm bear. Once he has finished his recovery from the operations to remove his rotten and broken teeth, repair the infected hole in his abdomen where the steel tube was shoved, and the removal of his testicles, he will begin his integration process.

Assisi's arrival at the Sanctuary

It is a long and slow process to ensure the bears are physically and mentally ready to be placed in enclosures with other bears. House mates are chosen very carefully. During the 4-6 week recovery time, vets and other staff observe very carefully each new bear and work out what their temperament is and who will make good friends. It is quite remarkable that these bears who would normally be solo in the wild, live harmoniously with other bears at the sanctuary.

Hopefully, Assisi’s memories of being imprisoned in a cage no bigger than his own body and the extreme pain from being “milked” every day for his bile, is fading and being replaced by hope and trust.

A grim reminder of the cages inside which these bears spent their lives

No longer caged and alone, Assisi is with friends. Soon he will be able to stand for the very first time in his life. As Rainbow, one of the Sanctuary staff who has hosted me each day, says, “When the bears leave their den for the first time and walk out into the open, they stand up and automatically reach up for bars, only to find there are none. This is when you see the happiness burst from their eyes.”

Just loungin' around enjoying the day

Breakfast with the bears

At 8:00am this morning there is a hive of activity in the bear enclosures.

While the bears are still in bed sanctuary staff are getting their breakfast ready. A delicious selection of fruit and vegetables are hidden in trees, shoved in holes in posts, placed under rocks; peanut butter is smeared on poles and coconut milk dribbled on stones for the bears to lick. The pools in each enclosure are emptied out, cleaned and refilled.

It is important that the bears develop their natural abilities to forage for food and not have it placed in front of them. It is also stimulating their very intelligent minds and giving them some fun. And oh what fun it was to watch them discover their breakfast.

And they're off ! Looking for breakfast...

At 9:30 the dens are opened and they quickly amble out. The sweet things goe first – the apples and watermelon, sweet potato and carrots. The pumpkin and cabbage is left until last. Just like children, they go for the good stuff first. Climbing up poles, diving on to hammocks, sniffing around in the grass, each bear gets its fill and some stop for a bottom scratch on a nearby post.
Life couldn’t get much better than this.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

First day at Animals Asia Sanctuary

I was fortunate enough to witness a health check on Smart, a bear who is thought to be in her late teens and has been in the sanctuary for seven years. She has lost 40kg, is sleeping a lot and suffering severe hair loss. Heather, the head of today’s veterinary team, says that they fear she could be in the early stages of cancer. The blood tests will hopefully shed some light. In the meantime, Heather has to remove eight teeth which are in various stages of rot and disintegration.

'Smart' gets her health check and dental procedure

This poor bear has spent many years biting on the bars of her bear bile cage in pain and frustration. As a result, teeth are broken, infected and decayed.

Three hours later, her operation is completed. The blood tests come back showing her bloods are at the top end of normal for her liver and worst-case scenario is that this could indicate the beginning of a fatal liver cancer, which claims more than 40% of the bears rescued by AAF. The vet team will be keeping a watchful eye on Smart and do further blood tests in two to three months to see if things have progressed.

To have the opportunity to touch and stroke this glorious girl, to rub her back and massage her paws was something I’ll never forget.

'Smart' gets a paw massage from Liane

I then took a tour of the sanctuary with Rainbow and it is an impressive operation with 150 staff and 170 bears over 25 acres of enclosures. It was incredible to see all these bears, lolling around on hammocks, playing with each other, taking a dip in the pool and just being able to be bears.

Having a dip in the pool

Their memories of the hell and torture they have been through is hopefully fading into a nightmarish past. It is unbelievable that they can trust again, the species who have imprisoned and tortured them their entire lives. But they do. Several bears showed great curiosity at my presence and came over to say hello.

A curious resident ambles over to say hello

A visit to the graveyard was next, where over 90 bears are buried, all marked with little wooden crosses and a stone bearing their name and date of death… of course no one knows when they were born. "Andrew” the first bear to be rescued takes pride of place with a specially inscribed stone.

"Andrew/Anderloo – we are not weaker without you but stronger because of you.”

Another sobering sight was a pile of crush cages that bears brought to the sanctuary have arrived in – a ghastly reminder of their hideous pasts. These cages are not big enough to put your cat in let alone a fully grown bear.

Crush cages - previous 'homes' for the Sanctuary residents

One of the sanctury’s oldest residents, Franzi, somehow survived 22 years in an even smaller cage (see photo) that stunted her growth and permanently deformed her spine. She now is 30 years old and lives peacefully with Rupert – an adorable brain-damaged bear.

Franzi's prison for 22 years

Tomorrow we look forward to being present at breakfast time when the bears are released from their overnight dens for breakfast and another day in the sun.

Play time

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Flying in to Chengdu

I actually met Jill Robinson on the flight from Hong Kong to Chengdu so that was a great co-incidence. She started telling me about some of the 170 bears at the sanctury - the blind ones and the brain damaged ones - and as we were standing in the aisle I got all teary - so at least she knows what she's going to be dealing with.

But as she said, "You are not in an exclusive club. We all cry all the time and those bears deserve every one of our tears." ... so I won't be alone tomorrow.