Best friends after 12 years of separation: behind the scenes of the Vietnam bile bear rescue

Written by Jeroen van Kernebeek, Country Director of FOUR PAWS Australia


Standing next to caged Hoa Lan and Hoa Tra really impressed on me how important freedom is. Theirs was taken away from them, but we freed them from their prison and gave them a life they deserve. It was a moment I will never forget.

It’s wonderful to see how they have become best friends at our Bear Sanctuary Ninh Binh. They’ve known each other for their entire lives, but this may have been the first time ever that they were able to play together.

Hoa Lan and Hoa Tra have also ventured outside for the first time in their lives, slowly getting used to all the new things such as grass, trees, a pool, the sun and butterflies – things that should be normal for bears, but they were cruelly denied for 12 years in their cages.

It is humbling to imagine. Only six weeks ago, I stared into the beautiful eyes of Hoa Lan, desperate in her cage.

Kneeling beside her I knew her life was soon going to change for the better, but she wouldn't have had a clue yet. It felt like this gentle soul bonded with me immediately. We looked at each other, she sniffed me (smell is a very important sense for bears) and tried to touch me with her paw through the iron bars. I would have loved to hold her hand to comfort her but of course that was not possible. Instead I just talked to her, telling her that everything was going to be ok and that we were there to get her out of her living hell. The words wouldn't have meant anything to her, but hopefully a kind voice was soothing.

As I sat there, I looked over my shoulder at Hoa Tra – a little more than a metre separating the two caged bears – and I wondered how often they would have tried to reach out to each other in a desperate and unsuccessful attempt for some comfort.

That gruelling long, hot and intense day was the start of Hoa Lan and Hoa Tra's new life. They were so patient and calm throughout the whole process. Our wild animal veterinarian Dr. Johanna Painer led the hours of vet treatment that the bears needed on the spot. Particularly Hoa Lan’s teeth were in a terrible state and required a lot of work.

Having seen how these bears survived for 12 years, I simply can’t believe how quickly they have transformed.

A few weeks of intensive care in our quarantine facility, with medication, healthy fresh food and love has prepared them for their new chapter in life. Whilst I will never be able to forget meeting these bears in their cages, it looks like they’ve already forgotten the cruelty and inhumane confinement they have endured. They’ve fully embraced life again and are not wasting a moment to get the most out of it.

It is truly unbelievable how forgiving these animals are.

Sadly, as Hoa Lan and Hoa Tra are enjoying their new home, some 800 bears are still trapped in cages on bear farms in Vietnam. And they’re disappearing at an alarming rate. That is why our work – together with our local partner Education for Nature Vietnam (ENV) and the authorities – is so urgent to convince more bear farmers to hand over their bears.

FOUR PAWS is committed to ending bear farming in Vietnam and we’ll fight for every bear we can.

Animal rescues never come easy and sometimes are a result of years of work. Negotiations with authorities and the animal owners, permits, planning, logistics, veterinary equipment and expertise, preparing the animals’ new home.

A rescue is the culmination of so much work, but it is only just the beginning of the story. Thanks to you, when the spotlight moves on, we are there to look after these animals for the rest of their lives.

If you would like to help look after Hoa Lan and Hoa Tra, please consider supporting our work.

These are special moments in the long road to end bear farming in Vietnam – for Hoa Lan and Hoa Tra and for everyone who cares so much about saving animal lives. 

Thank you for breathing new life into bears and for being by their side when they need us most!

Jeroen van Kernebeek

P.S. Australia’s covered the amazing rescue of Hoa Lan and Hoa Tra, read their account here >>> EXCLUSIVE: The climatic moment two bears held captive in appalling conditions for 13 years were freed has been captured on video.

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FOUR PAWS press contact

Elise Burgess

Elise Burgess

Head of Communications

M: 0423 873 382

FOUR PAWS Australia
GPO Box 2845 

Main Phone: 1800 454 228

FOUR PAWS is the global animal welfare organisation for animals under direct human influence, which reveals suffering, rescues animals in need and protects them.

Founded in 1988 in Vienna by Heli Dungler and friends, the organisation advocates for a world where humans treat animals with respect, empathy and understanding. The sustainable campaigns and projects of FOUR PAWS focus on companion animals including stray dogs and cats, animals in fashion, farm animals, and wild animals – such as bears, big cats, and orangutans – kept in inappropriate conditions as well as in disaster and conflict zones.

With offices in Australia, Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, France, Germany, Kosovo, the Netherlands, Switzerland, South Africa, Thailand, Ukraine, the UK, the USA, and Vietnam as well as sanctuaries for rescued animals in eleven countries, FOUR PAWS provides rapid help and long-term solutions.

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