In 1993, whilst watching a current affairs TV program in Perth, Mary Hutton saw a segment that would change her life and hundreds of others. The segment contained horrifying footage of Asiatic Black bears held in coffin sized cages unable to move or turn with dirty catheters inserted directly into their gall bladder. Mary learned that thousands of bears were being held in these horrifying conditions throughout Asia, regularly milked for their bile to feed the demand for bear bile to be used in traditional medicine. Gall bladders and bile have been used in traditional Asian medicine for centuries, however the commercial farming of bears began recently in Korea during the 1980’s so that the bears could be milked for their bile repeatedly throughout their lives.
The next day, Mary drew up a petition and stood at the entrance of the local shopping mall collecting signatures to help “Free the Bears”. Within months, she had thousands of signatures, a regular group of like-minded supporters which became a committee, and plans to build on the momentum that had gathered into a force to help bears throughout the world. On the 23rd March 1995 Free the Bears Fund was registered as a not – for- profit charity. Word of Mary’s work spread as she delivered petitions to the Chinese Embassy in Canberra surrounded by schoolchildren and organised raffles, film nights and other events to raise awareness about the plight of Asia’s bears. Memberships and merchandise were sold to raise funds for overseas projects as requests for help started to arrive in the post.
One such request from an Australian businessman, John Stephens, in Cambodia led to Mary learning about the plight of the Sun bear, the world’s smallest and least-studied bear species. John Stephens had rescued a number of bears from Cambodian restaurants where they faced being butchered for bear paw soup but now his work was bringing him back to Australia and the bears needed a new home. Mary organised for the Sun bears to be brought to Australia to start a regional breeding program and, recognising that there were more bears in need of help in Cambodia, began construction of the Cambodian Bear Sanctuary at the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre. This is now the world’s largest sanctuary for Sun bears and has educated hundreds of thousands of Cambodians about the threats facing their wild bear populations.
Further requests for help arrived and Free the Bears Fund was soon involved in projects throughout South-east Asia and even further afield. A telephone call from Maneka Gandhi in India led to the Fund joining Wildlife SOS and International Animal Rescue in the seemingly impossible challenge of rescuing India’s dancing bears. The first group of 25 rescued bears entered the Agra Bear Rescue Facility on Christmas Eve of 2002 and over the next seven years Free the Bears Fund fully supported the Kalander Rehabilitation Program, providing seed money for more than 500 former dancing bear families to set up new sustainable livelihoods. Less than seven years after the first dancing bears were rescued, the last of India’s dancing bears was handed over into our care and the sight of bears being dragged on ropes through the streets of India is now consigned to the past.
Greater challenges lie ahead for the Fund as we strive to bring bear bile farming to an end in Vietnam and protect Laos’ wild bears from the many threats that surround them. With each country facing a unique set of issues to overcome, we employ a range of strategies including environmental education, conservation research and strengthened law enforcement to ensure that we achieve our mission to protect, preserve and enrich the lives of bears throughout the world.