In 1993, whilst watching a current affairs TV program in Perth, Mary Hutton saw a segment that would change her life. The segment contained horrifying footage of Asiatic Black bears held in coffin sized cages unable to move, 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. Gall bladders and bile have been used in traditional Asian medicine for centuries, however the commercial farming of bears began in Korea during the 1980’s.
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 and a group of like-minded people determined 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. She 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.
One such request came from an Australian businessman, John Stephens, in Cambodia. John had rescued a number of sun bears, the world’s smallest and least-studied bear species, from Cambodian restaurants where they faced being butchered for bear paw soup. Mary organised for the Sun bears to be brought to Australia to start a regional breeding program. Recognising there were more bears in need of help in Cambodia, she 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 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 livelihoods. In 2009 the last of India’s dancing bears was handed into our care and the sight of bears being dragged on ropes through the streets of India is now consigned to the past.
In 2003 the Tat Kuang Si Bear Rescue Centre in Luang Prabang Laos was established followed by the Cat Tien Bear Rescue Centre in Vietnam in 2008. Free the Bears Fund currently provides lifelong care to over 200 rescued bears in sanctuaries it operates across Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos.
Greater challenges lie ahead for Free the Bears 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.