One of the rescued bears, Cyril Sunshine, relaxes in the sun.
One of the rescued bears, Cyril Sunshine, relaxes in the sun.

Bears, from tears to cheers

WHAT makes a Perth grandmother embark on a one-woman campaign to save abused bears?

"Pure rage," says Mary Hutton, who started a petition at her local shopping mall in 1993 after seeing a news story about the extraction of bile from a caged and traumatised Asiatic black bear.

"I was so angry that this was happening I couldn't sleep," she says. "It upset my peace of mind,"

"I learned that bears are kept in battery farm conditions, in dark miserable rooms, locked in extraction cages where they are unable to stand or even move," Mary writes in her new book Free The Bears.

"Most of these bears wear an iron corset around their middle, covering a crude tape inserted into the abdomen, through the stomach wall and into the gall bladder."

Today she says: "Getting into China to do something about it seemed so unattainable, especially for someone who was bringing up two children."

But standing in that shopping centre Mary discovered that many other people were horrified by this cruel practice to meet the demand for bear bile used in traditional medicine.

The petition with 3000 signatures that she presented to Australian Parliament, asking them to take action against the maltreatment of bears, and her later approach to the Chinese embassy was the beginning of an epic story of determination and courage.

While Mary says there are still 9000 bears in bile farms in China, Laos and Vietnam, she has helped free hundreds of others.

Through her charity, Free the Bears, established in 1995, sun bears, moon bears and sloth bears have been rescued from an existence of pain and suffering in various ways, from being kept in tiny cages, having their paws chopped off for soup, being snared as bait or forced out of their natural habitat, and being made to dance for money with metal rods inserted through their snouts.

Mary Hutton gets a kiss from one of her beloved bears.
Mary Hutton gets a kiss from one of her beloved bears.

An early supporter of her cause was Liberal MP Eoin Cameron but Mary says she has also been helped along the way by too many other individuals to name.

Her husband, Ronald, has been one of her biggest supporters.

While Mary learned how to work with embassies, governments, wildlife organisations and carers, he has always been her backstop through at times heart-breaking work and personal tragedy.

In 2005, their only son, Simon, who was Project Director for the Fund in Canberra, was fatally injured when knocked down by a car in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh.

Mary says: "We never knew there could be so much pain - we loved him so much and will miss him beyond words."

It has been 20 years since Mary, originally from the United Kingdom, began her fight for abused bears.

She does not receive any payment for her role and never has.

"My reward is seeing the bears happy and well looked after."

Despite seeing so many cases of animal cruelty first-hand she also says: "People's concern and help has restored my faith in human nature. They have been amazing."

Volunteers now raise funds for Free the Bears sanctuaries in Laos, Cambodia and India, which need $70,000 a month to keep them going.

At the Cambodian sanctuary in Phnom Tamao, for example, there are now 30 enclosures housing 163 sun bears and moon bears, both male and female.

"And they all like virgin honey, fresh meat and fruit," laughs Mary.

"We've also built almost 100 new night dens, several cub nurseries, a wildlife hospital and veterinary theatre, South East Asia's first discovery centre focussed entirely on bears, a wildlife themed playground and even a classroom for school children to learn all about endangered bears.

"Together with our government partners, we care for the largest number of sun bears rescued in the world. All funded by our wonderful supporters."

But there is much to do before all of the world's bears are rescued from a life of suffering or from senseless death.

Every child has a teddy bear on their shelves, says Mary. "But, in real life, bears are abused and exploited.

"We need money to get into China still but, because of funding demands, many bears are still suffering."

Besides China, Free the Bears is trying to make inroads into North Canada, where grizzly bears are hunted for trophies.

Increasingly their paws and gallbladders are also taken for the North Korean market, says Mary.

"At one stage 25,000 grizzlies were being killed each year," she says.

While Free the Bears has successfully eliminated the dancing bear trade in India - it took $1 million to do so because the charity bought bears off their owners - there are still dancing bears in Nepal, she says.

"We have been campaigning like crazy to help these bears and we had four come over the border a few weeks ago. But we need donations to keep going with our work."

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