Learn more about Animals Asia's herculean task of converting the Nanning Bear Farm into a sanctuary and education centre, and the 130 bears that need your help.
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When Animals Asia announced that they were helping the owner of a bear farm in Nanning, China, taking on almost 130 bears, I thought the same as everyone else: that is a lot of bears. But it wasn't until I visited the Nanning Bear Farm that I fully understood what that meant.
I've worked in bear sanctuaries in 5 different countries, and some of these sanctuaries had bear populations of over 100, including Animals Asia's China Bear Rescue Centre (CBRC) in Chengdu. I thought I knew what 130 rescued bears looked like.
Arriving at the Nanning Bear Farm I saw the scene familiar to anyone who has been on the Peace by Piece website, rows of cages, a remnant of the bears' previous life.
Shed 1: bear A1... A2... A3...
As we walk up the first of the 3 sheds, Jill Robinson, founder of Animals Asia, starts to greet the bears to whom she has made this amazing promise of a new life.
Bear A8... A9... A10...
This first shed has two rows, A and B, just like the other sheds. "Here's Smudge" Jill says, as we stop next to the second den on the right labelled 'B2' and watch the youngest Nanning bear play in her bathtub. We pass A8 "That's Barnaby on the left," Jill says, "not all of them have names yet."
Bear A12... A13... A14...
As we walk past what seems like an endless row of dens, the scale of this undertaking sinks in. The bears at the amazing CBRC sanctuary are spread between many different habitats, and even then are lounging in the dens, nesting in the trees, hiding under their climbing frames or even swimming in their pools. Come to think of it I had never seen more than a handful of bears at once. And yet here I was walking past endless faces; this is what 130 bears really looks like.
Bear B3... B4... B5...
Jill and her tireless vet team have spent enough time with all these bears, 127 of them to be precise, that they know all of them by name or by face. Some lucky bears have found a generous donor to name them, and those that have had their full veterinary health checks have given nicknames until they are lucky enough to be sponsored. I realise that these bears are individuals, with individual characters, appearance, likes and dislikes, and in some cases, medical issues.
As this sinks in I start to feel a sense of urgency. Animals Asia's biggest task may be to get these bears out in world-class enclosures as soon as possible, but their biggest challenge is to help people to understand and support the campaign for these 127 individuals. It was also my challenge for the following 3 days; I want people to see these wonderful bears, to put a face to each of these numbers.
Bear B6... B7... B8...
We walk past den B9 on our right hand side and the bear greeting us immediately stands out. This is Derek, named by comedian Ricky Gervais, and he is one of the stand-out characters of the farm, instantly recognisable and very affable. Some of the bears have understandably grown aggressive towards humans over the years, but Derek is not one of them. Buoyed by the love and care they have been given consistently over the recent months, Derek ambles around and allows me to get a good shot of him as he wonders what this new enrichment toy is (it's a camera, Derek, keep your paws off).
Derek's tongue hangs out, he has eye problems and scars on his head from bar scraping. Many animals held captive for so long will develop such 'stereotypies' from stress and boredom and these bears are no different. Sometimes bears will get over these habits after they are rescued, and some bears never will. Happily, Derek and some of the other bears here are already stopping such habits now that they have constant care and enrichment from Animals Asia.
B15... B16... onto Shed 2... A1...
Knowing what bile farms are like, I had braced myself for the worst and I wasn't expecting to see any happy, healthy looking bears. I was glad to be proven wrong. it's incredible just how much Animals Asia have been able to accomplish in such a short time. While bears like Derek still bear the scars of their previous life, they are already fattening up to healthy weights and so many of their coats are in fabulous condition, thick and glossy. While it's exciting to think about the bear rescue initially planned, or the big plans in store for the site in future, these bears are just happy to have constant access to food and water.
The bears have permanent access to outside dens, and are fed the perfect bear diet just as their friends in Chengdu are. It's stiflingly hot as the day drags on, but the bears now have constant access to water and the broken ceiling fans above each cage have been fixed. The local staff seem to have found a new lease of life just as the bears have. When not busy preparing the food and cleaning the dens according to Animals Asia's new routines, I always found the staff talking to their favourite bears and hosing them down with cool water to help them deal with the heat.
Moving on again, into shed 3. B1… B2… B3...
We come to Pickle, a sweet bear named by actress Lesley Nicol. Nicol stars in popular UK TV drama Downton Abbey alongside fellow actor and animal welfare campaigner Peter Egan, both of whom are big supporters of Animals Asia.
It's easy to see why Pickle is so loved. She is a survivor, already getting up to a healthy weight and her beautiful fluffy coat is growing back Her face shows not only the scars from her past, but also a big smile for her future. What better ambassador for the Peace by Piece campaign than Pickle?
Bear B12... B13... B14...
After the basics were taken care of, Animals Asia introduced as much enrichment as they could. The farm workers have been incredible, learning so much for the first time about the animals which have always been such a huge part of their life. Wen Yan, Vet Support Manager, translates for us as one keeper tells us how happy she is to see the bears filled with vitality and looking healthier. A huge smile crosses her face as she hands out flavoured ice treats, part of the increasing amount of enrichment that the bears are getting.
The bears are also prioritised in terms of their health, with those bears of most concern getting to the head of the queue for veterinary health checks. Health checks take a huge amount of time, money, expertise and equipment to perform. Even running at full steam it is going to take a long time to cover all the Nanning bears. The good news is that while common problems such as inflamed gall bladders and broken teeth are often found, as each day passes most of these characters are getting healthier and happier.
Some of the bears are also lucky enough to have an grassy outside area. Wolverine is a male bear who was used for breeding on the farm and now spends much of his time walking outside among the flowers. With your help, every single one of these characters will be able to enjoy the grass and trees just as Wolverine can. Plans for the sanctuary can be found on the Peace by Piece website, where you can also donate to these bears.
In between health checks, enrichment, and frequent stops to tell Smudge how cute she is, I finally made it round to meet all of these unique bears. I wish I could share each one of their stories with you, and I'm sure all of these characters will get their 15 minutes of fame as the days go on.
For now what better way to get across the scale of this project than to show you all of these special animals.
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