Colorado sanctuary rescued 22 moon bears from South Korea

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The 22 Asiatic black bears had spent their entire lives locked in small metal cages on a South Korean breeding farm. There, their gallbladders and bile were harvested and marketed as cures for everything from sore throats to cancer – and, more recently, as a treatment for coronaviruses.

The bears’ feet had never touched grass or dirt, and they were fed dog food instead of the produce, grains and fruits they needed for good nutrition.

“They were living in the most horrible conditions you could imagine,” said Pat Craig, founder and executive director of the Wild Animal Sanctuary in southeastern Colorado.

In mid-March, Craig’s nonprofit rescued the shaggy bears – nicknamed “moon bears” for the crescent-shaped yellow markings on their chests. This brought them to Colorado, where they are free to frolic, roam and fatten up.

“Seeing them finally free and playing in the grass for the first time was really rewarding,” said Craig, 62. He has welcomed unwanted and abused bears, lions, tigers and wolves to the sanctuary since 1980, and he added an acre refuge four years ago.

“You can tell the bears are happy now,” he said. “They are able to explore 243 forests [fenced-in] acres, play in the water and act like normal bears.

Through a collaboration with the Korean Animal Welfare Association in Seoul, he said, his nonprofit used about $200,000 in public and private donations to charter a jet this spring and save the 22 moon bears.

“We planned to do it earlier, then the pandemic hit and the country was shut down,” he said. “We were eager to get them out of there.”

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Craig has identified many more who need rescuing. The bears weigh 150 to 200 pounds and are about half the size of moon bears in the wild due to years of malnutrition.

“There are over 200 black bears in captivity in South Korea, and I’d like to save every one of them,” he said.

South Korea announced in January that by 2026 it would finally end bear bile farming and bile mining – a practice in many Asian countries that has sparked outrage and worldwide scrutiny, Craig said.

“The bears are placed in coffin-like cages so they can’t move, and then a stent is inserted into their gallbladder to collect their bile,” he said.

“These bears can’t roll, they can’t move, they can’t move, and they’re barely getting enough food to keep them alive,” Craig said. “They have no stimulation and they are never able to experience nature. It’s every bit as dreadful and convoluted as it sounds.

Bears often develop infections from extractions and die, he said, noting that their teeth can also become infected. Long-term health issues like arthritis are common, due to their cramped enclosures.

Although bile farming is on the way out in South Korea, several hundred bears are still kept in intolerable conditions, he added.

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“Now that the bile cages are gone, they have been moved to steel cages which are suspended on the ground so that their urine and feces fall downwards,” he said. “Their feet don’t even touch the ground.”

Members of the Korea Animal Welfare Association pay farmers to feed the bears and keep them alive until they can be evacuated from the country by wildlife rescue groups, Craig said, adding that the group had contacted him two years ago to help.

“We’d love to get them all out, but it takes time and money,” he said. “We could only fit 22 cages on the flight we chartered.”

South Korean volunteers loaded the caged bears onto the plane, then Craig and several employees met the flight in Los Angeles. They transferred the bears onto trucks and traveled nonstop to the shelter, located about 30 miles from Springfield, Colorado.

At the shelter, the bears were kept in temporary enclosures with private dens for about six weeks to help them get used to new sounds and smells and allow them to become familiar with their keepers, Craig said. Then, in April, they were released in stages into their rugged forest habitat.

A team of veterinarians observes them to make sure their adaptation to nature is going well, he said.

The sanctuary’s chief veterinarian, Joyce Thompson, said the bears came to the sanctuary with many ailments, including long-term malnutrition.

“I suspect some of them may have orthopedic issues as they age,” she said, adding that the bears are between 6 and 12 years old.

One of the rescued bears is blind, another has hip arthritis and a third has lost a front and hind leg, she said. These bears will be moved to the group’s smaller sanctuary near Denver for special care.

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“For the most part the bears are all doing well now and enjoying their new habitat,” Thompson said. “Before, they climbed in cages. Now they climb trees.

“We allow them to be their natural bear as much as possible,” she said. “They’re not on display here – they’re just doing what they want to do. If they want to, they can bathe. Or they can sleep all day in the shade. It’s up to them.

Each bear consumes about 10 to 15 pounds of fresh produce, grains and meat a day, Craig said, noting that fresh berries, raw eggs and salmon are a big hit.

“A delicatessen gave us lasagna once, and they really enjoyed it,” he said. “We place a lot of food throughout the habitat, so there’s never a reason for them to fight over it.”

Craig started his animal sanctuary with a single jaguar when he was 19 and said he took particular joy in watching large carnivores explore a natural environment, finally free after years of abuse.

“I grew up on a farm and have always loved animals,” he said. “When I discovered that there were big cats and bears that were over-produced by breeders and unwanted by zoos around the world, I decided to make it my life’s work to save some. as much as possible.”

He said he fenced off his family’s farm outside of Boulder, Colorado to begin with, then gradually received enough donations to buy a larger space.

Eighty-five staff and 160 volunteers now care for about 700 lions, tigers and bears at two Colorado facilities and a sanctuary in Boyd, Texas, Craig said, adding that many animals spend most of their lives in circuses or locked up. in cages.

“We even took in a few camels, kangaroos and ostriches,” he said. “But above all, we focus on large carnivores. They are expensive to feed and dangerous to maintain, and it is more difficult to find places to house them.

Now that the sanctuary’s new residents are rolling in the dirt and exploring the scented woods for the first time, Craig said he hopes to save more moon bears soon.

“They are beautiful animals, and they deserve to be free and enjoy life,” he said. “I would love to help even more of them experience that feeling of wild grass under their feet for the first time.”

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