The end is nigh, a few hours to go before the flight to Hong Kong and then home to Australia. Yesterday we awoke to blue skies and sunshine. In Chengdu, there is a saying that when the sun comes out, the dogs bark. It is that rare.
The bear gods were smiling on us with the weather and the plan was to spend 10-11 hours at the sanctuary. As it happened we spent a little under 8 hours there in the end. Mainly through being exceptionally slow in getting everyone together. Money was an issue for some and finding a bank that would change Aussie or US dollar was proving to be interesting.
We arrived two hours later than planned at midday. Jill was there to greet us and as usual charmed everyone with her disarming attitude and easy going nature. For me it was lovely to see her again after the roadshow. She inspires me and I often find myself crying when I am with her. Yesterday therefore, was a fairly emotional day.
The day was about seeing behind the scenes, meeting some of the staff and hanging out with the bears. A real treat for everyone and for many the main reason for the whole two weeks. And what a tour. Jill knows almost all of the bears by name and their history and current condition. We were able to take our time and meander through the whole place, seeing much more than the previous visit.
Cameras clicking away, we were treated to some beautiful and quite rare moments. Benji gamboling about his enclosure trying to get his sister to play with him, Weston and another bear, whose name escapes me, having a full on play fight, way better than any WWF match. A scratch here, some pool action over there, it was great to see.
After a quick lunch Jill led us down to an enclosure we had not yet visited and it was obvious we were in for something special as walkie talkie action was fierce. All lined up and ready we waited in anticipation as the bears were let out for their afternoon stroll. The enclosures were dotted with food, spread randomly to encourage foraging behaviour. The sound of a bell (think Pavlov), lets the bears know that it is time to eat and the doors are opened. They come bounding out, many with missing limbs, yet still showing remarkable agility. Tomatoes seemed to be the food of first choice and their incredible sense of smell meant that even those hidden under piles of rocks were soon discovered.
Feeding time at the Sanctuary where the bears help themselves
We were also treated to a wonderful talk from Jen, an Aussie vet working at the sanctuary. There are a few vet nurses in the trekking group and they found the chance to pick Jen’s brains fascinating. Even those that had no concept of the work undertaken found it very interesting. Jen is over here for a year and has dragged her partner along as a volunteer, (another Aussie vet called ‘Bear’ believe it or not). There are also two Aussie vet nurses here, Carli and Fiona, as well as a number of poms. We had a great chat with them and they all seem to love it here. It must be a great experience, somewhat different from working in the local vet practice back home.
Then we were led up some stairs to the top of a smaller enclosure. No bears were out but the food had been laid out for whoever was in there to come and find it. The gates to the door were lifted and out strolled a fully grown brown bear with deformed legs, stunted from years of being trapped in a cage too small for his body. It was Oliver.
Oliver enjoying his freedom
For all of us this was a fantastic moment. To re-cap, Oliver was rescued in April from Shandong having spent 30 years of his life in a cage. As a bears lifespan is approximately 30 years, he has been fast tracked through the process of quarantine and rehabilitation and is now out on grass twice daily. You can tell by the way he walks that his legs are not what they should be. You can also tell he loves being outside. He is a bear that smiles. Enjoying his twilight years, discovering things he could never have imagined existing when in the depths of his imprisonment.
Yes, I cried. (Just thinking about it brings the tears to my eyes now..). It was another highlight of the trip for me and many others.
Reaching out, Oliver going for his forage
Oliver, chilling out and enjoying himself
The tour continued, past more enclosures and then on
through the cemetery. It is a beautiful but sad place.
Andrew, the first bear ever rescued by Animals Asia is there. Franzi and Rupert, side by side, eternal playmates as they were in life. Assisi and many others, resting serenely but also about to contribute to the growing scientific knowledge and argument against bear farming. The bears are generally cremated. It is the bears with deformities, significant body abnormalities that are buried. Their bones to be dug up and used for scientific research. A cornerstone in the fight that Animals Asia will continue to take on.
The day was finished with a vegetarian banquet and drinks on the roof top above the bear enclosure. The food was delicious and simple, the bears settled beneath us. Jill had one final surprise for us all as she led us, very quietly in two groups down to watch the bears sleep. A truly magical experience. The way in which they lay sprawled in their hammocks, spread out, arms and legs akimbo, is testament to the fact that no bear should ever be in a cage.
Moon Bear Mellowing
Today we are off home. The majority of the group already gone to their various destinations. Nine of us are going to Sydney and we arrive tomorrow, early morning. It has been a wonderful trip. Plenty of highs, a few lows and some great friendships made. Roll on the next trek.