As of April, 22 Asiatic black bears are getting used to comfort and freedom after years of abuse and misery, thanks to the Herculean efforts of animal advocates in South Korea and the United States.
The black bears, also known as “moon” or “bile” bears, have been used for centuries as a “cure” for various ailments, from cancer to COVID-19. The ancient practice is prevalent in China, Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam, but can also be found elsewhere, including the United States, according to an article by The Wild Animal Sanctuary in Colorado.
The bears spend their entire lives in 5-foot by 10-foot cages and only grow to about 150-200 pounds thanks to the bare minimum of care and feed that they are provided with.
The means by which the bile is harvested is particularly cruel. Some bear farms simply harvest the entire bear and sell the rest of the body parts as well.
Until more recently, though, a common means of harvesting was to lock the bears in tiny metal cages with a metal belt strapped around them to keep them immobile while they are drained of their bile until they died from infection, stress or (rarely) old age.
“The bears are put in coffin-like cages so they can’t move, then a stent is put in through their gall bladders to collect their bile,” Pat Craig, founder of The Wild Animal Sanctuary, told The Washington Post.
“These bears can’t roll, they can’t move, they can’t shift, and they’re barely fed enough to keep them alive,” he continued. “They have no stimulation, and they’re never able to experience nature. It’s every bit as appalling and torturous as it sounds.”
Working together, the Korean Animal Welfare Association and The Wild Animal Sanctuary negotiated with a South Korean farm that agreed to hand over the bears if the rescue covered the upkeep costs.
With the pandemic and the following issues regarding shipping, it took two years before the groups could secure transport for 22 bears from South Korea to Colorado.
“We had planned to do it sooner, then the pandemic hit and the country was shut off,” Craig said told the Post. “We were anxious to get them out of there.”
It cost $200,000 to charter the transport jet, and the groups eventually needed two jets to get all the bears safely stateside.
Finally in March, the bears made it to Colorado where they were kept in separate pens for six weeks to let them decompress and familiarize themselves with their new digs. Out of the 22 bears, one was blind and another was missing two paws, and those two were taken to a smaller, related sanctuary to get more specialized care.
But the 20 others, ranging in age from 6 to 12 years old, experienced true freedom starting in April, when they were released into their very own giant sanctuary.
The bears went from metal bars, cramped quarters and dog food to 234 acres of dirt, grass and trees and plenty of berries, eggs and fish.
They’ve even gotten to sample Italian fare, and loved it.
“A deli donated some lasagna to us once, and they really enjoyed that,” Craig said. “We place plenty of food throughout the habitat, so there’s never any reason for them to fight over it.
“To see them finally free and playing in grass for the first time was really rewarding,” he added.
The bears face an uncertain future health-wise after years of mistreatment. They’ll never get very large, and many will experience orthopedic issues as they age.
“For the most part, the bears are all now doing well and are enjoying their new habitat,” head veterinarian Joyce Thompson told the Post. “Before, they were climbing cages. Now they’re climbing trees.”
“We’re allowing them to be their natural bear selves as much as possible. They’re not on display here — they just get do whatever they want to do. If they want to, they can go swimming. Or they can sleep all day in the shade. It’s up to them.”
Craig still isn’t done with his labor of love, but the road ahead is uncertain. What is certain is that there are still plenty of bears that he wants to rescue.
“There are upward of 200 captive black bears still in South Korea,” told the Post. “And I’d love to save every one of them.”
This article appeared originally on The Western Journal.
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