Locum Nurse volunteers for Bear Rescue in Vietnam
Lauren is preparing Bear `Ollie` for his neutering procedure...
A Vet Nurse Volunteering overseas
Lauren K Williams RVN

It has always been my aim, or more accurately, but slightly slushy, my dream, to one day use my qualification to work overseas.

From the first moment I decided to become a veterinary nurse (not a vet…..) I knew I wanted to do something to help less fortunate animals, ideally some kind of conservation work, but even a local neutering scheme would be part of my goals.

How amazing to sit down with future generations and reminisce about that time you were meeting village chiefs in the Gambia. Staying up half the night, trying to catch wily street cats in Portugal, or hand-feeding elephants and bathing them in the river, on the reservation where they now live in peace – no longer crippled by carrying tourists on their backs or hauling logs through rough terrain for hours on end.
Or living in Vietnam for three months helping to give an endangered species a peaceful and fulfilled life after maybe years of torment?

It’s actually taken me years to get where I am today. My initial forays into searching for overseas work (well, if you’re going to do it, most of the time you’d rather not have to work for free in your home country………) were terribly disappointing, I wrote to so many places, asking for help and advice on how to break into this field, and I got nothing back, nothing helpful at any rate.

Every so often I might stumble across a website for volunteers, but I only seemed to find the ones where you not only volunteered, but paid extortionate amounts for the pleasure – I do not get paid enough to give my skills away for free, while earning no money for months at a time and paying someone else to work there – teetering on the ridiculous, isn’t it?

Eventually, my family got internet access at home, so I could spend many more hours trawling around. I’m afraid once I get an idea, I do not like to give up on it.

One evening I came across the WVS (Worldwide Veterinary Services); at that point they were quite new. I promptly joined them, and within a few days an e-mail was sent out for volunteers needed to go to the Gambia, so my journey was at last started.

From there I joined TNR (trap/neuter/release) schemes as a cat trapper with the ‘Kismet Account’, while still perusing the internet and veterinary magazines for any other volunteer schemes.

Most of the placements with the WVS were for a week or so. I really wanted to do longer periods than that, and I still wanted to break into the conservation/wildlife side of things.

It was in my Veterinary Nursing Times that I first saw an article about Animals Asia Foundation, based in China. Animals Asia rescues Asiatic black bears, also known as moon bears, from the brutal bile trade. Their bile is extracted, by various cruel methods, to be used in Chinese medicines – even though it is proven that synthetic and herbal products are just as effective.

When I first heard of Animals Asia, I wasn’t in a position to join them, having just come back from a year’s travel, and having to buy a new car after the brakes decided not to work on my once trusty Fiat Panda. So I bided my time.

It was at the beginning of this year that I decided the time had come for me to start grabbing my dreams, desperate to get a few things in before I turned 30 (I have a couple more years, but saving is involved and can be time-consuming). At this point, Animals Asia had started to build a new centre based in Vietnam. On receiving my application, I was informed they only had a placement available in their Vietnam centre, and would I be happy to go there instead of China? Personally, as long as I was accepted to go somewhere, I would take whatever they offered. And so, I prepared for a three-month placement at the Vietnam Moon Bear Rescue Centre near Hanoi.

I arrived here at the beginning of October. The centre is nestled in a valley adjoining the Tam Dao National Park. It is going to be a stunning location when construction is finally completed.

This centre is ‘sister’ to the original China Bear Rescue, based in Chengdu, Sichuan Province. At the moment we work in the Quarantine Area (QA), while large dens and semi-rural outdoor areas are being constructed next to the babbling brook running through the park.

Currently we have 23 bears here, a mix of 18 moon bears, and four Malayan sun bears. The bears we have received, so far, have been in relatively good body condition, although mentally they need help re-adjusting to the new surroundings. In stark contrast are the mistreated bears that arrive at the China centre, some not even surviving the journey from the bile farm to their new haven. The China bears are in truly atrocious condition; so far I have been somewhat shielded from this reality in my peaceful location, but I have been told enough by full-time members of staff to know that this is not the norm.

For me, it’s a difficult thing to try to choose from. Originally I thought I would be based in China, dealing with all these horrific things, but that’s the part I wanted, getting in there and doing something, relieving suffering by any means possible, and hopefully, watching an animal be rehabilitated and released into a safe and well-established environment.

I’ve been asked a few times if I’m disappointed at being in Vietnam, not completely built yet, only 22 bears compared to China’s 172, no major rescues, etc, but what can you say? ‘Yes. I wish we had more abused bears bought here’?! Of course not, you wouldn’t wish this treatment on your worst enemy, so, if it happens that my bears tend to have more psychological problems than physical ones, it’s still a problem, and I’ll work my way to win their trust, whether it be after a traumatic life previous to their rescue, a major operation or a castration, every little bit counts surely?

And in a way, it may, dare I say it, be better over here. It’s still relatively small, a little family, made up of our Vietnamese workers, the western staff based here (there’s only four of us currently) and of course our bears, who, being such a select group at the moment, you can’t help but get to know on a very individual basis. A bear’s not mentioned in conversation that you do not know.

Obviously, in a few years, this will all change, and the centre could become as full of bears as the China centre. While in Vietnam, bear farming is technically illegal, the practice is still widespread. All farmed bears remaining on farms should be microchipped and registered. Bile is removed by sedating the bear, usually, with ketamine (not the anaesthetic of choice). The bear is then tied down (as an extra restraint in case they start to wake during the procedure), and, using an ultrasound machine to locate the gall bladder, a medicinal pump is used to remove the bile. This may sound kinder in a way, but these farmers are not professionals, and a bear will be repeatedly jabbed by the needle before the gall bladder is located, which is obviously not ideal and causes a myriad of physical problems in itself, as well as the obvious trauma the bear will go through.

We have had three bears here (Mama, Moggy and Miracle) who have needed cholecystectomies, due to bear bile removal. We routinely send off samples for histopathology (microscopic analysis of the cells) to see what damage and changes have taken place, either due to nature and age, but more likely in these cases, due to the extraction of their bile. One pathologist commented: ‘I am wondering how this bear can survive, because if this was a human being’s sample, that person would be dead long ago’. The other two samples were in a similar degenerative state.

You’d be pleased to know these three bears are still going strong, ‘Miracle’ being referred to as the ‘Homer Simpson’ of the bear world, content (and on a diet). And Mama and Moggy now live together, copying everything the other one does, even down to food preferences that day!

A bear health check involves a general anaesthetic; a team of bear ‘movers’ assist in weighing and moving the bear through to theatre (all injections are given via a ‘jab-stick’ while the bear is ‘distracted’ with jam or some tasty treat at the front of the cage….)

Under general anaesthesia, the bears are micro-chipped, have blood and hair samples taken, pictures of their bodies and markings, teeth checked and dentals performed if needed, ultrasounds carried out, nails clipped and fluid therapy used if it is a long procedure. Capnographs are used to aid in monitoring the anaesthetic.

There is an anaesthetic nurse and a ‘roving’ nurse, whose job it is to take all the samples needed and make sure the list of duties has been carried out (eye check/ear tagging, etc).

Male bears are castrated; not only does it lead to a more ‘harmonious’ life when they are finally released into the semi-rural enclosures, but it also means that no more bears are being born into captivity, and we can concentrate on the ones that truly need our help. At the moment it is not a priority to try and breed this species, but to save them from suffering.

I can’t believe my time here is nearly up – three months passes surprisingly quickly; it only feels I arrived a short time ago, and soon I’ll have to start saying my goodbyes. And, as you would expect, I’ve become particularly fond to two of our bears here, it will be a wrench to walk away.

First is ‘Munchkin’ a little sun bear who I’ve seen all the way through her progress, from arrival to den release – another reason to be content in my Vietnam placement; not many volunteers get to see the whole process from start to finish. All I need to do now is get back here for when the outdoor areas are complete and see her story finished!

She is a tiny and feisty character. She was so very scared and angry on her arrival that when we put her into a bigger cage, we had to cover half of it up, because she wasn’t used to the space. She would lash out and has been one of the few bears to truly scare our bear workers with her early rages. She only weighs 26kg, but she has the personality of an animal weighing five times that.

Personally, I’ve always been a ‘chatter’, and I’ve found animals seem to enjoy a little inane murmuring to take their minds of things. Colleagues can sometimes find it odd, the amount I murmur and discuss things with my patients, but it usually becomes clear very quickly that they are more relaxed (or numbed by boredom) when spoken to. The same seemed to work with Munchkin – understand that these are animals that will never be released into the wild, so it’s not a case of desensitising them to humans. At first she would be furiously pacing (a stereotypic behaviour, one of many different forms) as you cleaned around her, but as time passed, and you talked away, she would start to quietly sit and watch you, her head cocked to one side, maybe standing up and holding onto the bars of her cage to get that tiny bit closer.

It was wonderful to be there when she was released into her den, changed from this angry scared little bear, into an inquisitive and cocky little madam. It’s almost impossible to get a good photo of her, because as soon as you appear at the bars of the den she is up there, looking as if butter wouldn’t melt as she reaches out to grab your camera from your hand. And don’t get me wrong, she’s cute, but if someone were to throw you in a den with her (or any of the bears) it’s unlikely you’d be in this world for long, you sure wouldn’t look pretty if you made it out.

Karuna is probably our saddest case, caught by a snare, her fore paw was in a terrible state, and had to be amputated. Unfortunately this then broke down, and she needed complete amputation of her front leg. Added to this, she is blind. But, as always the bears amaze me. She is now out of her ‘transport cage’ (TC) and into a den. She responds when you have a little chatter to her, sitting up on her haunches and turning her head, sometimes she just sits there, like a little statue, listening. Occasionally she has a conversation of her own, by ‘clucking’ (the noise they make to communicate) to her neighbour, Miracle. They are in ‘slide contact’, which means they can touch each other through the bars and generally be interactive in a controlled manner. So these two girls will sniff and cluck away, putting their paws through the bars to feel the other; it’s a lovely thing to see.

The best bit though? Sneaking round for a little ‘bear observation’ (not only useful for keeping an eye on stereotypic behaviour, but also an excuse to gaze at them) and finding her sprawled out on her bed of straw, little legs akimbo, looking so content it makes you want to curl up and fall asleep yourself. I don’t think much is going to beat that first glance of Karuna sleeping in a ray of sunshine in her big girls den.

So, my advice, if you want to do something, do it. Life’s too short. And if it’s not what you expected at first, hold out a little longer, it may actually turn out to be exactly what you wanted.

Sadly, on the 24/12/08, our beautiful Karuna passed away, she will be missed, her graceful presence never forgotten, rest in peace little one.

Copyright: Lauren Williams and ALPHA IMPACT Ltd www.alphaimpact.com

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