This month we catch up with two very passionate local women, who are about to head off to China to volunteer at the Sun Bear Sanctuary in Chengdu.
How long have you lived in the Manning Great Lakes, and what do you love about the area?
I was born in Taree and lived there for 18 years until I went to uni. Moved to Forster in 1987 to teach at Forster Public School.
I think this is one of the best places in the world to live. We are so lucky to have a clean, peaceful environment where people are friendly and supportive. I love living near the water, and I’m thankful my children had the chance to grow up here, as they love to surf and fish.
You previously worked as a teacher at Forster Public School. What inspired you to retrain as a vet nurse?
I retired from teaching due to having breast cancer and then depression, but I was encouraged by my doctor to think about pursuing another career, and I knew I wanted to work with animals. For a few years I had wanted to work as a volunteer with the Moon Bears and realised I could make that happen if I became a vet nurse. Not only did it help to heal me, but this training has enabled me to work with the bears and with dogs and cats both here and in China.
In 2006 you won a competition to name a bear. Tell us a little bit about the competition and that trip to China.
Woman’s Day magazine conducted a competition to name a Moon Bear to help raise money for their rescue. Entrants were required to make a donation and suggest a name for a bear. I chose the name Mani, which is from a Buddhist mantra, Om Mani Padme Hum, and means ‘precious jewel of compassion’.
The prize was for 2 people to travel to the sanctuary in China and meet the bear, which I had named.
Since 2008 you have been volunteering with Animals Asia in Chengdu, China. Tell us a little bit about the organisation.
Dr Jill Robinson MBE formed the Animals Asia Foundation in 1998 after discovering the horrific bear bile farms in 1993. She has devoted her life to rescuing the bears and lobbying to end bear bile farming forever.
In 2000, the Chinese authorities signed an agreement with AAF to free 500 bears on the worst farms. So far, 275 have been rescued and taken to the bear sanctuary near Chengdu. The rescued bears need extensive veterinary treatment, can never be returned to the wild and require ongoing care and rehabilitation.
As a volunteer, what are some of the duties you perform in your care for the bears?
One of our jobs is to help in the morning in the hospital kitchen to prepare medicated shakes (a fruit smoothie), for about one third of the bears. As well as the shakes, some medications are hidden in marshmallows! If any bears are in the hospital rooms, we give them medication and breakfast, then clean out their cages and the room. There’s always more cleaning of the outside walkway to be done and washing, etc. I work as a Behaviour and Management volunteer, so another of my jobs is to do hours of observations on a group of bears or an individual, record their behaviour every 5 or 10 minutes and enter all the data in Excel worksheets for the vets and bear managers to analyse.
Do you have a particularly fond memory from your time with the bears?
I have so many great memories, it’s hard to single one out. However, I did have a wonderful opportunity to do observations on a bear cub we rescued in November 2009.
Jill named her Jingle Bear, and I was able to observe her for several months. I watched her blossom from a terrified cub of approximately 6 months to a feisty, playful young bear. She had been trapped illegally in the wild and had lost her right paw, and in the wild she should have been with her mum for 2 – 3 years.
It was a privilege to be able to watch her confidence grow and see her adapt to her new home at the centre, but the memories are bitter sweet, because by rights she should be living free in the wilds of Sichuan.
You are heading back to China soon. What is planned for this trip?
I’m returning with vet nurse Sam Blake for 3 months as a BM vollie and will enjoy catching up with some of the staff I worked with last year. My duties will be much the same, and I’m looking forward to seeing the most recent rescued bears and getting to know them.
Current Occupation: Veterinary Nurse – Forster Veterinary Hospital.
What got you interested in working with bears?
I love all animals and have always been very interested in their welfare. I first heard about Bear Bile Farming about 12 years ago, and I recall thinking that this was one of the most barbaric human acts that I had ever heard of. Those bears got into my head and my heart, and I knew that I had to do something to help.
Why is this work so important?
I think that all animal welfare work is important, and it’s extremely difficult to say that one case of cruelty is more important than another. BUT, this is a situation where these beautiful creatures are not only held captive in tiny cages and treated with incredible cruelty, enduring immense physical pain and psychological trauma – they are kept this way for years on end – often decades. Animals Asia, along with a number of other organisations, are working with the Chinese and Vietnamese Governments to shut down the bile farms and provide alternative means of income to these ‘farmers’. It is a situation that can be changed. Slowly but surely this is happening, but the commitment and work must continue.
What other work have you done as a volunteer with animals?
I have worked at the Phnom Tamao Bear Sanctuary in Cambodia, which is run by Free the Bears (an Australian organisation founded by Mary Hutton). I’ve also worked at a Bear Rescue Centre in Balikpapan, Borneo, where the majority of the work I did was actually neutering domestic animals – they came from far and wide when they heard that there was a western vet and nurse team carrying out free neutering, and arrived by all sorts of means.
It was at times comical, and we wondered if the arrivals would ever end. I’ve also worked at a primate rescue centre in Ciapus, Java, working mainly with Macaques and Slow Loris and with the Bali Animal Welfare Association (BAWA), working with the ‘street dogs’ of Bali. Here in Australia, I work locally with the amazingly dedicated Animal Welfare League team caring for animals waiting to be rehomed, and when I can find the time, I volunteer in the Sydney office of WSPA (World Society for the Protection of Animals).
Thank you Anne and Samantha.
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