Packet Sea Foam: Hilton Head man remembers beloved dog from his boyhood

Bird-watching trip offers glimpse at other animals' resilience

May 23, 2011 

Thanks to Nancy Pogue of Rose Hill Plantation for sharing the story of an unexpected discovery in Vietnam.

EVERY BEAR HAS ITS DAY

By Nancy Pogue

Little did I realize when I signed on to a bird-watching trip to Vietnam in February that I'd become sidetracked by bear-watching.

I was traveling on a Cincinnati Nature Center safari with bird watchers of the highest level, bar one -- me! I've traveled with them over the years to Africa, Ecuador, New Guinea and, last year, Cuba, all the time pretending to nail the flight and feathers of each bird only to realize I'm fooling no one. It's the trip I'm after ... the sights, the camaraderie and the wonderment of new horizons.

From Savannah to Washington, D.C., to New York to Frankfurt, Germany, to Singapore to Hanoi, here I come ... exhausted.

Our first day in the Hanoi area was so bleak and cold even the birds stayed in. I'm sure they were warmer in their nests than we in our tile-floored rooms. Our hotel was so cold we could see our breath when we congregated for dinner.

That night, huddled under a thin quilt and as many sweaters as I could find to drape over my feet, I thumbed through my copy of "Birds of Southeast Asia" and somehow dozed off, dreaming of spotting a yellow-eared spiderhunter or a scarlet-breasted flowerpecker on the next day's watch. (The names of Asian birds are just as captivating as their size and markings, and the drawings in this book would tempt the most blasè to lift up his binoculars and swoon at the unbelievable beauty of the pin-tailed parrot finch just biding his time on the branch overhead.)

On our second morning, we boarded our bus to drive to the Moon Bear Rescue Centre in Tam Dao National Park. We arrived just at breakfast time to observe a young staff prepare the daily ritual for the 71 bear inhabitants that could be seen swaying back and forth at the doors of their "apartments," eager to be let out.

At this time, I knew nothing about moon bears. But as I observed the young and enthusiastic staff place apples and carrots on high up spikes, hide oranges and cabbages in hollowed out logs and tie giant ice pops to the tops of platforms that had to be climbed to get them, I realized something unusual, indeed, was about to happen.

The outdoor enclosure is about the size of a football field, with bear-sized rock ponds for swimming, hammocks to lounge in, trees to climb and large colored balls to play with. A huge tire suspended from ropes from a large log lets two bears step on it and swing.

Once all the food is in place, the doors are opened and out come the bears. They are really rather polite in this mass approach to breakfast ... no pushing or jostling, rather an orderly assessment of where to sniff out the best breakfast treats.

Outside the enclosure, many signs are strategically placed. They include guidelines for visitors, such as not to put hands through fences or do anything to get the bears' attention. They also document the backgrounds of these rescued animals.

Moon bears, or Asiatic black bears, are named for the moon-shaped crescent on their chests. In both China and Vietnam, they are caught from the wild and kept trapped for their bile, found in the gallbladder. The bile is then sold for everyday remedies for anything from headaches to hemorrhoids -- or for use as an aphrodisiac.

Up to 40 percent of bears on these "bear farms" die within a year. Usually drugged and restrained with rope, they have their abdomens repeatedly jabbed with four-inch needles until the gallbladder is found.

Bears caught from the wild are often missing limbs from being trapped and some farmers brutally cut off their claws and teeth to make them "safer." The bears aren't given room to move around. They are confined to cages, which causes terrible physical and mental suffering, their diet consisting of a poor, cereal-based swill unsuitable for the type of animal they are.

When rescued, they all have surgery to mend the damage in their abdomen, which can take up to seven hours. More than 90 percent of the bears have shattered, rotten teeth, which need to be removed. They all need medicines and most take a long time to heal. Sadly, some of the bears from these farms cannot be saved.

About 10,000 moon bears live in pain on bear farms in China and Vietnam. In 1998, the Animals Asia Foundation (www.animalsasia.org) was established, devoted to the welfare of wild and urban animals in Asia. Their moon bear rescue centers are aimed at bringing the barbaric practice of bear farming to an end, with the ultimate goal of bringing these bears to their sanctuaries to live out their lives in peace and safety.

From what I saw on a cold day in the Tam Dao National Park near Hanoi, the Animals Asia Foundation is more than keeping its promise to not only rescue bears from farms, but help them remember how to be bears -- to forgive and let joy into their lives, as evidenced by a playful moon bear I observed before we left, happy beyond words, on his back, tossing a eucalyptus branch in the air and catching it in myriad ways.

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