The open-walled shed, running the length of a tennis court, appeared forlorn at first glance. Tangled metal wires, tarnished steel frames, and empty petroleum barrels were strewn across the uneven dirt floor. It was a strange place to come looking for bears—but tucked away in a corner, hidden behind a corrugated zinc wall, we found them: two Asiatic black bears in adjoining copper cages.
Wendles had the sweeter face, but it was Bazan who first caught my attention. Her temper matched her namesake—fiery, like the red basalt soil that grows most of Vietnam’s famously bitter robusta coffee. In the 90-degree heat, Bazan paced in quick circles, growling softly. A small crowd had gathered in front of her cage. After 12 years in captivity, she’d come to learn that people usually signaled harm, not help.
“Bears on farms often mistrust people because they think they’re coming to take their bile,” says Weng Yan Ng, a veterinary surgeon. Earlier this spring, she and other members from the animal-welfare organization Animals Asia had traveled to An Khê, a town in Vietnam’s Central Highlands region, to meet Quoc Viet Le, the owner of a timber construction company who had gotten in touch with the local forestry department to say he wanted to give up his “pet” bears. Now, Ng was there to rescue them to Animals Asia’s sanctuary up north.
Le, a slight man with a neat moustache, told me through a translator that he would miss the bears. But had been persuaded by his elder son, a monk in training, to release the animals for “compassionate reasons.” Le’s change of heart is encouraging to conservationists, who are part of a new push to free the more than a thousand Asiatic black bears, or moon bears, that remain trapped in Vietnam’s illegal bear-bile industry. The Vietnamese government says that it can shut down the last bear farm in as little as three years, and is about to sign a memorandum of understanding with Animals Asia affirming its commitment to that target.