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Saving Vietnam’s Moon Bears

“Looking at the rescued bears we care for is my motivation to keep going and to work towards rescuing even more bears to give them this life,” says Thuy Hoang, sanctuary manager for Animals Asia. “Here they are happy, they are healthy, and we are giving them the life they deserve. We are always looking to the future, imagining the next bears that we will be able to rescue.”

Learning to be bears again

Image an emerald green valley carved out of the lush rainforest, dotted with ambling bears. Life in this sanctuary is a shocking contrast to where these poor creatures were once trapped. Their renewed freedom at the Animals Asia Tam Dao bear rescue center is a slice of paradise. These deprived bears could have never dreamt of such a place during their traumatizing pasts. They arrived defeated and broken from years of being crammed into metal cages no bigger than coffins. Hardly room to stand and turn around, let alone act like a bear. They were stripped of their survival skills needed to thrive in the wild.

Semi-natural habitat at the Tam Dao bear rescue center.
Semi-natural habitat at the Tam Dao bear rescue center.

The harsh truth is Animals Asia rescues bears that suffer unthinkable physical ailments. Anything from broken teeth from inappropriate diets, missing paws from being caught in the wild, stunted bone growth, arthritis, and hair loss from rubbing on cage bars, on top of being psychologically traumatized. Upon arrival at the rescue center, these bears require many months and sometimes years of extensive veterinary care and rehabilitation. Despite the poor condition of the bears, most make a good recovery thanks to the professional care they receive. Even among this overwhelming trauma, there is a tangible sense of optimism at the center. Life in this sanctuary finally means that each of these over 200 bears have been given the chance to simply be bears again.

Moon bear in a water tank
Moon bear resting in a water tank at Tam Dao bear rescue center.

Saving bears with empathy

Animals Asia, a charity seeking to end animal cruelty throughout the continent, has been leading the charge to abolish bear bile farming since 1998. Their approach is laser-focused and driven by the idea that behavior and inhumane practices can be changed with empathy. Animals Asia’s work has paid off, thanks to the success of a nearly three-decade-long initiative. The Vietnamese government has committed to ending bear bile farming, allowing all remaining bears to be rescued– ensuring that no bear is left behind.

“I will be extremely happy when there will be no more bears being tortured every day,” says Hoang. “By ending bear bile farming in this country, we can act as an example for other nations to empower them to end animal cruelty too.”

In 2017, Animals Asia signed a memorandum of understanding with the Vietnamese government, committing to the closure of all bear farms in Vietnam. With this monumental next chapter, Animals Asia has promised to provide sanctuary to the over 300 additional bears still on farms in Vietnam. Ground has already been broken for a new bear sanctuary in Bach Ma National Park, already lovely coined as Vietnam’s final bear sanctuary.

Moon bear swimming
Moon bear eating a sweet potato while swimming in their semi-natural habitat.

Shocking abuse of farmed bears

Medieval torture seems the be the closest comparison to the practice of farming bears. Unlike domestic livestock farmed for their wool, eggs, milk, or meat – bears are farmed for their bile, a thick digestive fluid made by the liver and stored in the gallbladder. For centuries bear bile has been a sought-after remedy in traditional medicine practices throughout Asia. Rich in ursodeoxycholic acid, bear bile has been proven effective in dissolving gallstones and treating liver disease and is often prescribed for anything from colds to bruises.

Historically bear bile was obtained by hunting wild bears and removing their gallbladders, causing this prized substance to be treated as a rare commodity that was used sparingly for dire medical conditions. This trade mainly targeted Asian black bears (Ursus thibetanus) also known as moon bears, which are considered vulnerable by the IUCN Red List. In the 1980s there was a barbaric shift to capturing bears and keeping them alive in cages to extract their bile. This became a widespread means for mass-producing bear bile across Asia in what should be referred to as bear bile factories.

The gruesome truth is bear bile is an internal fluid that cannot be milked, so invasive surgical techniques are employed to collect bile from living bears. Crammed into metal cages, for easier bile collection, they are often restrained or sedated and repeatedly stabbed in their abdomen with a long needle until their gall bladder is located. Then a catheter is connected to a mechanical pump that sucks out the bile. This is repeated again and again to capitalize on harvesting the most bile from each bear, literally sucking any profits possible. Each bear is seen as a production unit, worth nothing more than the amount of bile they can produce. This physical and phycological neglect leaves these trapped bears to suffer terrible trauma repeatedly for decades.  

Asian black bear receiving a wellness exam at a bear sanctuary in Vietnam
Newly rescued moon bear receiving their first wellness exam at the Tam Dao bear rescue center.

World-class rehabilitation

Each rescued bear is treated and monitored as a unique individual with their own specialized needs. During the rehabilitation process, each bear’s behavior and well-being are closely monitored by the Animals Asia staff through regular health checks and daily observations. The Tam Dao bear rescue center also has an onsite surgical facility and hospital that is equipped with all the necessary veterinary equipment to give the rescued bears the best possible recovery.

Additionally, the center employs over 90 staff members that include veterinarians, veterinary technicians, bear caretakers, translators, administrative support, gardeners, security guards, and maintenance professionals. This world-class sanctuary has been accredited by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries since 2014 and was the first facility to do so in Vietnam. This accreditation is the global ‘gold standard’ among animal sanctuaries, and is achieved through a rigorous testing and inspection process that confirms the humane treatment and highest possible care for the bears at the rescue center.

Moon bear food in red buckets at Vietnam sanctuary
Healthy, balanced afternoon meal for the rescued moon bears.

Cruelty-free alternatives to bear bile

Thankfully today, tastes have begun to change throughout Vietnam, and consumers have mostly moved on from bear bile. Instead, demand has started to turn to equally effective herbal and inexpensive synthetic alternatives, leaving Vietnam’s bear bile industry to finally fade away.

“Instead of pointing fingers, Animals Asia works with traditional medicine doctors to host free health checks for locals to change the mind of people from the inside,” says Ngoc Chu supporter engagement coordinator for Animals Asia. “By providing herbal alternatives free of charge we can help offer kind solutions instead of criticisms, and work alongside communities and the government.”

Animals Asia staff member in uniform in Vietnam
Ngoc Chu supporter engagement coordinator for Animals Asia.

Through their ‘Healing without Harm’ campaign, Animals Asia provides educational materials to the public with information on growing and maintaining herbal alternatives at home. Even collaborating with the Traditional Medical Association in Vietnam to create an herbal alternative to bear bile which is regularly provided for free during community events.

“We create a positive domino effect,” says Chu. “As a local Vietnamese woman, I am grateful to see kindness in action from our work in educating and raising awareness. With these shifts in perspective, we can decrease the demand for bear bile, changing the way people see bears.”

Herbal alternative to bear bile
Herbal alternative to bear bile growing on the grounds of the rescue center.

How to support Animals Asia

Although the Tam Dao bear rescue center is not officially open to the public, guided tours for small, registered groups are offered twice a month. These tours are intended to connect local community members and students with the work of Animals Asia through public education.

“I want people to have hope and kindness,” says Sarah van Herpt senior bear team manager. “Our Animals Asia teams work to understand where local communities are coming from. We value their cultures and their backgrounds. Our mission is to always lead with empathy, understanding, and respect.”

To support this ongoing work to end animal cruelty throughout Asia and abolish bear bile farming please visit the Animals Asia website for more information.  

Rescued moon bear eating a potato
Rescued moon bear eating a sweet potato in their semi-natural habitat.

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