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Her First Taste of Freedom

28 February 2005

The once hopelessly dull eyes yesterday shone so brightly and inquisitively as Franzi, a rescued bear, inched her way out to explore her new home. Sniffing playfully at the fresh forest air, the dwarf adult bear's heroic steps were enough to melt even the hardest of hearts. (To enlarge the photo of Franzi, click on the photo or link)

Franzi will never be able to stand as her back was crippled by human cruelty, her body horribly stunted after she was boxed into a tiny and cramped living coffin on a bile farm in China.

But the relief of freedom saw her yesterday grappling on to a branch for support and hauling her diminutive frame tall in a "secret garden" den she shares with Rupert the Bear.

A delightful smile and her twinkling eyes tell the world she is glad to be alive.

Until recently, Franzi was one of about 7,000 Asiatic black bears, also known as Moon Bears, locked up in appalling conditions on a Chinese bile farm.

Aged about 25, she was robbed of her youth after being captured as a cub in the wild.

But she is one of the lucky 186 animals plucked from the clutches of barbaric torture and a near certain death after years of excruciating suffering.

Liberation came after the global charity AAF set up a sanctuary in Chengdu.

The Western Daily Press last week joined forces with the scores of volunteers across the region to launch a campaign to raise funds to ensure the release of another bear.

Meanwhile Franzi, who arrived at the rescue centre on the brink of death, yesterday let out roars of pleasure as she padded around her new den.

The soft grass was a stark contrast to the bars and concrete of the cell that held her for more than two decades.

Her cries of joy were heard by her pal, Rupert, a real-life "bear of little brain" who shares her purpose-built den.

Because of their injuries and mental scars, the vulnerable duo are kept apart from the other boisterous bears at the sanctuary.

Roo, as he is fondly known by his carers, has been left brain damaged and emotionally broken by the horrors of an ordeal that saw him kept in filthy squalor in a cramped cage, little bigger than himself, while he was milked for his gall bladder bile. (To enlarge the photo of Roo, click on the photo or link)

As dawn broke yesterday, he stirred, stretching his limbs as he awaited the arrival of his breakfast treats of melons and peaches.

He has woken to another day safe in the knowledge the hours before him will be filled with fun and excitement.

"Life has not always been so good for Rupert the Bear," said Jill Robinson, AAF founder.

"With no room to stand up, sit down, or even turn around, Rupert spent years of his life trapped inside a metal hell. But to make matters worse his abdomen had been deliberately punctured, creating a hole to allow the free flow of bile, to be collected by his keeper, and sold for use within traditional Chinese medicine.

"He was a desperately unhappy and unhealthy bear."

Rupert arrived at Chengdu four years ago, terribly underweight. He had been "free drip" milked for his bile.

The drain, inserted in a hole between his gallbladder and abdomen, often leads to chronic infection in surrounding organs. At Chengdu, Roo had emergency surgery and after a long period of rehabilitation, including nursing his physical wounds, he has just moved into his new den with Franzi. The team there noticed Roo had a lopsided mouth and muzzle. He could not chew properly and often dropped his treats. He would also scoop up his food with his paws, but although he was hungry, much tumbled to the floor.

Worse, when he was outside, he paced pathetically in circles as if scared of space.

Staff realised Roo was brain damaged.

"Not only had the physical effect of his incarceration taken its toll, but the psychological side of his imprisonment was also having a major impact upon his life," said Jill.

He was given a large dose of tender loving care away from the crowds, and among his close circle of friends was Somerset, a cub sponsored by Lee Gibbons, a tireless campaigner from Holford, near Bridgwater.

Jill said: "Everyone at the rescue centre loves Roo, who is a gentle, affectionate bear. He is one of the favourites and, despite his tragic past, he obviously loves the presence of people. He loves to be hand fed and will purse his wonky lips for tasty treats of fruit, whilst closing his eyes in bliss."

Everyone at the sanctuary has been profoundly touched by Franzi. "She is a bear who has broken and won our hearts in the past two years since arriving in December 2002," said Jill.

"The vision of this sad, dwarf-sized bear who shrank to the back of her crush cage will never leave me.

"Deliberately de-clawed, de-toothed and a horrible pus-infected wound in her abdomen showed all too clearly her life of being milked like a machine.

"More than anything, her eyes said it all - and every so often she'd look up from staring at the floor, look sadly and intensely into our eyes for a few seconds before turning back to the corner to the cage, retreating into her world of pain and despair."

Roo and Franzi are now seen snoozing together, content and happy in each other's company on the wooden platform of the "Bali hut".

Jill, who is based in Hong Kong, added: "Franzi's attitude with people is incredible, and shows how forgiving Moon Bears are as a species. Inquisitive, nonchalant and always interested in the world around her, she makes us laugh too with her obvious likes and dislikes of food and how fussy she can be when something is not quite as she'd like.

"She now knows that if she spits out pieces of apple containing peel then the next morsel will be dutifully peeled and I can't help thinking how well this sweet, but willful old lady, has us all trained.

"There is no greater reward that to see Franzi, a bear I feared would never live long enough to enjoy the sights, sounds and smells of Mother Earth, now utterly at peace in her new world away from the horrors of bear farming."

The AAF sanctuary is also home to Abbey and Woodley, Quantock, Somerset, Virginia, Erl, JuJanLu and Weston-super-Bear, all sponsored by Moon Bear rescue groups in the West. Please support the Western Daily campaign to help AAF free more bears like Franzi and Rupert.


Our thanks to Brian Brinkley, and Andi Mowrer of Animals of Asia Foundation http://www.animalsasia.org for sending us the story and photos, and to West Press http://www.westpress.co.uk for writing the story.

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