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Holistic management for rescued bears
  1. Nicola Field

Abstract

Nicola Field heads Animal Asia's veterinary team in China. The charity is dedicated to ending bear bile farming and here she describes how the team takes an integrated approach to caring for the bears

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ACROSS Asia, thousands of bears are farmed for their bile. In China alone more than 10,000 bears are kept on bile farms, and around 2400 suffer a similar fate in Vietnam. The bears have their bile extracted daily. Bile has historically been used in traditional medicine, but it has also now found its way into many household products..

Routine health checks are carried out every two years, and (inset) a new arrival comes under close scrutiny

Bile is extracted using various invasive techniques that can cause infection. This practice continues despite the availability of effective and affordable herbal and synthetic alternatives. The bears that we rescue – mainly Asiatic black bears (Ursus thibetanus), some brown bears (Ursus arctos) and a few sun bears (Ursus malayanus) – are cared for and rehabilitated at bear sanctuaries in China and Vietnam. They vary in age from young cubs to bears that have been kept on farms for up to 30 years.

At the bile farms the bears are generally kept in small cages, in a non-stimulating environment, where they endure tremendous suffering. When they come to us most of them are in a deplorable physical and psychological condition. Surgery is required to remove their infected gall bladders and they often have numerous other health problems. Typically, the issues we encounter include malnutrition, dental disease, ophthalmic disease, cholecystitis, liver cancer, osteoarthritis, chronic stress, abdominal herniation and internal abscessation, etc.

Their injuries are addressed through a holistic management strategy that incorporates veterinary and behavioural expertise. Our approach incorporates the needs of our bears and recognises the integration of these elements for their health and wellbeing. Many factors come into play and none has more importance than another. They include providing nutritious food, enrichment, preventative care, good husbandry, minimising stress, promoting species-specific natural behaviour and routine health checks, among others. Bear management infiltrates every aspect of the medical care and is important in veterinary decision-making and case management. Consequently, communication and record keeping are key in our sanctuaries, with vets, VNs and the bear management team working cohesively to provide the best possible care.

Veterinary roles

While the majority of the ‘bear and vet team’ are locally employed and capacity building is an integral part of Animals Asia's work, we do employ overseas vets and have employed vets from the USA, the UK, Australia and the Netherlands. These are usually two-year posts, but some vets have stayed up to twice as long.

The vets come with a range of experience; ideally, we want vets with at least three years' work experience in a large mixed veterinary practice, zoological facility, specialist referral centre, or similar. We need vets with excellent clinical and organisational skills, attention to detail, an aptitude for problem-solving medicine and self-directed learning, as well as plenty of initiative and flexibility. It also helps to have a good sense of humour, excellent communication skills and the ability to live and work closely with a team that comprises Western and local staff. Cultural sensitivity is crucial in this work and a history of working abroad is always useful, as is a background in captive wildlife management or charitable veterinary work.

All foreign staff live on site, which is around a 40-minute drive from Chengdu, Sichuan – a city of 14 million people. The sanctuary is surrounded by farmland, although not far from the urban sprawl.

We aim to have two veterinary surgeons working at any one time. All the bears at the sanctuary are routinely health checked every two years, which equates to carrying out two to three health checks a week. These include running blood tests, ultrasound examination of the abdomen and heart, an ocular examination, a dental examination, and a full musculoskeletal examination noting any crepitus and decreased range of motion, and taking x-rays.

There are a lots of databases and records to be maintained – veterinary and behavioural. Vets also conduct twice-weekly rounds of all bears with ongoing concerns; one particular worry is our ageing population of bears, coupled with their compromised health from their previous lives. Significant challenges are faced in assessing quality of life and pain management, which is an issue that requires close collaboration of veterinary and behavioural personnel.

Once a week we hold a small animal clinic that primarily involves neutering and vaccination of staff pets, and this is an area that we hope to expand. Our vets also do outreach work collaborating on veterinary capacity and training or shelter management.

Developing expertise, knowledge and understanding of the impacts of bile farming on the bears is crucial and Animals Asia has enjoyed collaborations with international and national specialists in cardiology, ophthalmology, dentistry and anaesthesia.

Vets, bear managers and VNs also contribute to animal welfare, behavioural and veterinary workshops and conferences across Asia and the globe.

Working in Animals Asia's sanctuaries is a unique experience that challenges and touches all those who join the team. For most, the experience of working with the bears results in personal and professional growth.

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