The difference between sanctuaries and zoos

If you are planning a trip to Chengdu, China, please do take the time to visit the Moon Bear Sanctuary. I had the experience of a lifetime there. You need to book in advance.
We arrived at the Moon Bear Sanctuary at around 10am, where we were greeted by the lovely Jill Robinson and led to watch the brilliant Animals Asia team prepare Ju Jan Sue for Surgery (or beargery).
Ju Jan Sue was one of the 123 rescued moon bears residing at the sanctuary at the time, and just like the rest, she had suffered unutterable trauma and pain at the hands of bear bile farmers. Although she had been within the safe haven of the sanctuary for many years, health problems caused by her past still arose.
A brief insight into the horrors of bear bile farming: moon bears are captured from the wild, often in traps that severely injure them, sometimes leading to the loss of multiple paws. From there, they are crammed into small crush cages, were they are deprived of all that is natural to them, and denied any shred of compassion. To make their incarceration even worse, these bears suffer a puncture wound to the abdomen, from which bile is drained, without the use of any painkillers, until they finally demise from infection or neglect.
The mental strain of being kept in such unimaginable conditions leads to problems like bar biting – which then causes the deterioration of their teeth – fur loss – from rubbing up against the bars – deformed bones – from being unable to stand, or even move, for years on end. This is the fate of thousands of moon bears across China and Vietnam.
For the lucky bears, like Ju Jan Sue, they end up at the Moon Bear Sanctuary. As a result of her time on a bear bile farm, never being able to fully stand, she had suffered an abnormality on her foot, causing one of her claws to grow into the pad of her paw, resulting in obvious pain.
Today, it was time for the claw to be removed.
In absolute awe, I watched the Animals Asia team proceed with the utmost care and precision as they set Ju Jan Sue down for surgery. It was admirable and remarkable in every sense of the word. During her surgery, I was lucky enough to rub the big warm belly of a sleeping bear. The difference between the soft skin, and the tough, uneven scar tissue from the puncture wound on her abdomen was substantial; and a daunting reminder of all that she had been through. I was ecstatic to join in with Ju Jan Sue’s health check, which involved clipping her claws, collecting hair samples and checking her pulse through her tongue – it’s not every day you get to give a bear a manicure. Once all the relevant data was gathered, Ju Jan Sue had hot water bottles placed under her armpits, a sock on each paw, and a warm blanket tucked around her – I have never seen anyone look so snug.


Next, we toured the sanctuary accompanied by Jill and her two rescue dogs, Muppet and ToZhai (ToZhai means rabbit in Mandarin – he was rescued during the year of the rabbit). Each bear enclosure was paradise for the amazing creatures who had been denied so much throughout their lives. To see them running, playing, lazing around, doing as they pleased, was a thing of beauty. There were over 100 bears at the sanctuary, and that number was due to double in size, thanks to the successful closure of another bear bile farm in China. The building of further enclosures was currently underway, funded solely by kind donations from the public. In total, between the Chinese and Vietnamese centers, there had been 600 bears rescued as of 2016. A grave yard was also established at the sanctuary for the bears who had passed on, and upon each grave sat a carving of Andrew’s crest – the first bear to ever enter the safe haven of the sanctuary (moon bear’s each have a lemony, moon shaped crest across their chests – it is to them as a fingerprint is to us, a form of identification). Along the tour, we came across a sight both beautiful and heartbreaking – an accumulation of crush cages, piled high as a monument to the bear’s who had survived their incarceration, and also as a brutal reminder to never give up the fight against bear bile farming. The love and passion that the Animals Asia team exhibited for each and every bear at the sanctuary, tugged hard on my heartstrings, and I will never forget it.


You can discover more about the astounding work of Animals Asia on their website, and also sponsor a bear to find out all about their past and their progress. The moon bear sanctuary is funded completely by donations. That means food, toys, enclosures, medication, everything; it comes straight from the heart of the supporters, which is why your donation really does mean the world the team and the bears. So please, give what you can and be sure to spread the word about the wonders taking place at the Chengdu Moon bear rescue!
If you’re wondering how I came to be at the sanctuary in the first place, then allow me to enlighten you… It all began with a poem, which was transformed into a song and can be viewed below, or here: If only I could speak.

If only I could speak

I have spent my life in this cage,
incarceration is all I know.
The bars clenched tight to my body,
they are my tomb and my home.
Veiled by terror and sorrow,
there is barely room to breathe.
To think of anything but the inevitable end
would be senseless and naive.

I have seen my friends before me.
I’ve heard their gasping breath.
Dragged across the bile stained floor
as they near the valley of death.
Inside I rage and scream,
but externally I cower.
For to draw attention to myself
would closer my final hour.

If this is all I’m good for,
just ceaseless, needless pain;
then why gift me with a life?
Why must I remain?
Can’t you hear our shouts for justice?
Can’t you hear our mournful cries?
Can’t you witness our fear-ridden bodies?
Please God, won’t you open your eyes?

I cannot fathom your reasons,
behind this sickening game.
We all feel hurt and emotions
and our hearts they beat the same.
People who are so eager,
so willing to take a life,
if the tables were turned I’m sure you too
would beg them to drop the knife.

You think you have right of privilege,
to do with us what you please,
because you have left us defenseless,
begging on our knees.

If I could only speak,
then these are the words I would say:
It doesn’t take much to realise
that it should never have been this way.
Give us a chance to feel safe,
let us feel life’s glory.
Look into my eyes,
gaze upon the despair
and please listen to the words of my story.

by Amy-Le Owens


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