Animals Asia

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A Better Life for Bears

A Scholastic reporter goes on a mission to rescue moon bears from an illegal farm in Vietnam

Bazan paced in circles, growling softly. It was a spring morning in An Khê, a town in central Vietnam. But the zinc roof over Bazan’s copper cage only made the 90-degree heat worse. Someone had stuck a long spoon with honey through the bars, but the bear was too agitated to notice. A small crowd had gathered in front of her cage, and in Bazan’s experience, that was never a good thing—people often signaled harm.

But the group I was part of that morning had come to rescue Bazan and her friend Wendles. The two Asiatic black bears had spent the past 12 years living side by side in separate cages at the back of a warehouse filled with timber logs, copper pipes, and empty oil barrels. Illegal farms like this exist throughout Vietnam, where more than 1,000 bears still live in captivity.  

Moon bears, as they’re often called because of their crescent-shaped tuft of cream-colored chest hair, are prized in some parts of Asia. The bears are snatched from the forest for their bile, a yellow liquid that helps digest fat. Bile has been used for thousands of years in traditional medicine to treat a variety of conditions, ranging from liver problems to sore throats. People who harvest the liquid use needles to extract it from a bear’s gallbladder, the organ that stores bile. The process is a painful one and can severely harm a bear’s health.

Bazan paced in circles, growling softly. It was a spring morning in An Khê, a town in central Vietnam. But the zinc roof over Bazan’s copper cage only made the 90-degree heat worse. Someone had stuck a long spoon with honey through the bars, but she was too agitated to notice. A small crowd had gathered in front of her cage. In Bazan’s experience, that was never a good thing. People often signaled harm.

But this time, people meant help. The group I was part of that morning had come to rescue Bazan and her friend Wendles. The two Asiatic black bears had spent the past 12 years in captivity. They lived side by side in separate cages at the back of a warehouse. They were surrounded by timber logs, copper pipes, and empty oil barrels. Illegal farms like this exist throughout Vietnam. More than 1,000 bears still live in captivity in the country. 

Asiatic black bears are also called moon bears because of their crescent-shaped tuft of cream-colored chest hair. They’re prized in some parts of Asia. The bears are snatched from the forest for their bile. Bile is a yellow liquid that helps digest fat. It has been used for thousands of years in traditional medicine to treat many conditions, ranging from liver problems to sore throats. People who harvest the liquid use needles to extract it from a bear’s gallbladder. That’s the organ that stores bile. The process is a painful one. It can severely harm a bear’s health.

LIFE IN CAPTIVITY

Although the Vietnamese government has banned bear-bile farming since 2005, hundreds of small bear farms exist, with one or two bears each, says Tuan Bendixsen. He’s the director of Animals Asia, a charity that’s working to end the illegal practice. On farms, the bears are kept in appalling conditions.

“Many of the bears are in the dark, with no access to natural light. They don’t have access to water and are often fed watery gruel that undoubtedly leaves them feeling constantly hungry,” says Weng Yan Ng, a veterinarian at Animals Asia who was on the rescue mission. “When we find them, they’re often sitting amongst rusting metal and feces on the cage floor.”

Bazan’s 5-by-5-foot cage, although barren, wasn’t the worst that Ng and Bendixsen have seen. Their organization works with the Vietnamese government to negotiate the release of bears from illegal farms. Quoc Viet Le, the owner of a timber construction company, had purchased Bazan and Wendles more than a decade ago from local indigenous people. But as we stood in Le’s warehouse, he told me how he now wanted to give the bears up for compassionate reasons, out of respect for his elder son who was training to become a Buddhist monk.

The Vietnamese government banned bear-bile farming in 2005. But hundreds of small bear farms still exist with one or two bears each, says Tuan Bendixsen. He’s the director of Animals Asia, a charity that’s working to end the illegal practice. On farms, the bears are kept in awful conditions.

“Many of the bears are in the dark, with no access to natural light. They don’t have access to water and are often fed watery gruel that likely leaves them feeling constantly hungry,” says Weng Yan Ng. She’s a veterinarian at Animals Asia who was on the rescue mission. “When we find them, they’re often sitting amongst rusting metal and dung on the cage floor.”

Bazan’s 5-by-5-foot cage wasn’t the worst that Ng and Bendixsen have seen. Their organization works with the Vietnamese government to free bears from illegal farms. Quoc Viet Le purchased Bazan and Wendles more than 10 years ago from local indigenous people. He owns a timber construction company. As we stood in Le’s warehouse, he told me how he now wanted to give the bears up out of compassion. He wanted to release them out of respect for his son, who was training to become a Buddhist monk.    

Courtesy of Animals Asia (bear in cage); Inaki Relanzon/NPL/Minden Pictures (cages)

Before being rescued, some bears are kept in cages barely big enough for them to fit.

A NEW HOME

Animals Asia had arranged for Bazan and Wendles to move to a large 30-acre open enclosure at its bear sanctuary, about 720 miles north. But first, Ng had to coax the bears into sturdier transfer cages for the journey—a process that took more than two hours.

We in the crowd were told to stand back and out of the bears’ sight, because “bears associate people with harm. They think people are coming to take their bile and not to help them,” explained Ng. 

Eventually, Ng moved the bears into the transfer cages with the help of sweet treats like honey, marshmallows, and condensed milk. It was only a three-day drive before they could start their new lives.

Animals Asia had arranged for Bazan and Wendles to move to a large 30-acre open enclosure at its bear sanctuary. The sanctuary was about 720 miles north. But first, Ng had to coax the bears into sturdier transfer cages for the journey. The process took more than two hours.

We in the crowd were told to stand back and out of the bears’ sight. If they saw us, they might get scared because “bears associate people with harm. They think people are coming to take their bile and not to help them,” explained Ng.

Eventually, Ng moved the bears into the transfer cages. She encouraged them with the help of sweet treats like honey, marshmallows, and condensed milk. It was only a three-day drive before they could start their new lives. 

“The moment a new bear first arrives at the sanctuary is always a special one,” says Heidi Quine, who is in charge of the bear and vet teams at Animals Asia. Bazan had remained agitated on the trip, but she was quiet as her cage was rolled out of the truck. She was taking in the smell of pine trees and cool mountain air. She even caught the scent of other bears nearby.

This was just the beginning. From here, Bazan started her long road to recovery. Some problems—like malnutrition, hair loss, and overgrown claws—are easier to fix than others. Many bears often exhibit signs of mental stress when they first arrive at the sanctuary. Others may have broken teeth or missing paws.

Ng and the other vets at the sanctuary monitor the bears’ health closely during the initial 45-day quarantine.

“The moment a new bear first arrives at the sanctuary is always a special one,” says Heidi Quine. She’s in charge of the bear and vet teams at Animals Asia. Bazan had remained agitated on the trip. But she was quiet as her cage was rolled out of the truck. She was taking in the smell of pine trees and cool mountain air. She even caught the scent of other bears nearby.

This was just the beginning. From here, Bazan started her long road to recovery. Some problems, like malnutrition, hair loss, and overgrown claws, are easier to fix than others. Many bears are stressed when they first arrive at the sanctuary. Others may have broken teeth or missing paws.

Ng and the other vets at the sanctuary monitor the bears’ health closely during the initial 45-day quarantine. During quarantine, new animals are kept alone and monitored. This way, they don’t infect the other bears with any diseases they may have.

Jim McMahon/Mapman

Meanwhile, Quine and her team get busy planning nutritious meals rich in fruits and vegetables. Coconuts are a favorite treat in the hot weather. Once the quarantine period is over, the bears are slowly integrated alongside the other rescued bears in the sanctuary.

About 160 bears live in small groups in bear houses, which open onto grassy enclosures filled with swings, hammocks, and other climbing structures. Workers at the sanctuary rotate the small structures twice daily, hiding food and other treats in them to keep the bears stimulated.

“We try to give them a chance to be bears again, to get back what they lost on the farm,” says Quine. It’s a sentiment that many at Animals Asia share. “The best part of my job is seeing a bear become healthy, grow in confidence, make friends, and begin to realize that they can relax and sleep in the sun, because no one will hurt them again,” says Ng.

Meanwhile, Quine and her team get busy planning nutritious meals of fruits and vegetables. Coconuts are a favorite treat in the hot weather. Once the quarantine period is over, the bears are slowly added to areas with the other rescued bears in the sanctuary.

About 160 bears live in small groups in bear houses. The houses open onto grassy enclosures filled with swings, hammocks, and other climbing structures. Workers at the sanctuary rotate the small structures twice a day. They hide food and other treats in them to keep the bears stimulated.

“We try to give them a chance to be bears again, to get back what they lost on the farm,” says Quine. Helping these bears is a goal everyone at Animals Asia share. “The best part of my job is seeing a bear become healthy, grow in confidence, make friends, and begin to realize that they can relax and sleep in the sun, because no one will hurt them again,” says Ng.

The charts below show different data sets about bears. Use the charts to answer the questions that follow. Record your work and answers on our answer sheet.

The charts below show different data sets about bears. Use the charts to answer the questions that follow. Record your work and answers on our answer sheet.

Which data set would be best displayed as a line graph? Why did you choose it?

Which data set would be best displayed as a line graph? Why did you choose it?

A) Which data set would be best displayed as a bar graph? Why did you choose it?

A) Which data set would be best displayed as a bar graph? Why did you choose it?

B) Which bar would be the smallest?

B) Which bar would be the smallest?

A) Can the data on the number of moon bears living in the various Asian countries be represented as a circle graph? Why or why not?

A) Can the data on the number of moon bears living in the various Asian countries be represented as a circle graph? Why or why not?

B) Can this data be represented using another type of graph? If so, which would you choose?

B) Can this data be represented using another type of graph? If so, which would you choose?

A) On a separate sheet of paper, graph the data in the chart of Bazan’s monthly weigh-ins.

A) On a separate sheet of paper, graph the data in the chart of Bazan’s monthly weigh-ins.

B) Between which months did Bazan lose weight? How can you easily tell this from the graph you made in part A?

B) Between which months did Bazan lose weight? How can you easily tell this from the graph you made in part A?

A vet at Animals Asia wants to know how Wendles the bear spends her time each day—whether it’s eating, sleeping, playing with other bears, foraging for food, or resting. He makes observations for a month, then takes the average. What is the best graph to represent the data? Why?

A vet at Animals Asia wants to know how Wendles the bear spends her time each day—whether it’s eating, sleeping, playing with other bears, foraging for food, or resting. He makes observations for a month, then takes the average. What is the best graph to represent the data? Why?

A) If scientists were to discover 100 moon bears living in Malaysia, which chart would it affect?

A) If scientists were to discover 100 moon bears living in Malaysia, which chart would it affect?

B) How would a graph based on the chart you chose change based on the new findings?

B) How would a graph based on the chart you chose change based on the new findings?

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