Bears' Print May - ALL our latest achievements

With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the past six months have been some of the most challenging we've faced. Despite the challenges, we're holding our heads high, staying hopeful and pressing on with whatever plans we can. We're incredibly grateful to everyone for your support during these difficult times. Read about our latest achievements in our new Bears' Print newsletter, with updates from the sanctuaries and a special message from Free the Bears founder Dr Mary Hutton. Read or download the full newsletter by clicking here or enjoy some highlights below.



Dear Supporters and Friends, Greetings to everyone in the Free the Bears family. What a year it’s been - I sincerely hope you and your family are healthy, safe and have been spared the worst impacts of COVID-19. We can only hope that the situation is brought under control as soon as possible, that lives can get back to normal and we see positive action emerge from this terrible tragedy with increased commitments by governments across the world to bring an end to wildlife markets and wildlife farms, as well as the illegal trade in wildlife and use of wildlife in traditional medicine. In March this year Free the Bears turned 25. I’ve always said that with true belief one person can make a difference, but if you can get help along the way, it’s so much better. The help and support we’ve been given over the past 25 years is nothing short of incredible and has led to so many achievements we can all be very proud of.

Together we’ve helped rescue from a life of suffering over 950 of the world’s most vulnerable bears - sun bears, moon bears and sloth bears. 10 years ago you helped us rescue the last dancing sloth bear, Raju, from the streets of India, ending a centuries old tradition while at the same time providing alternative livelihoods and education to the Kalandar gypsy tribes who had been trapped in a cycle of poverty and animal abuse for generations. Students from the first generation of Kalandar children to receive an education have recently graduated university.

You’ve helped us build beautiful sanctuaries in three countries, providing safe haven and care for hundreds of rescued bears. Our bears enjoy forest enclosures with swimming pools, caves, climbing towers and hammocks, healthy diets, daily enrichment, world-class vet care and lots of loving care from the local communities we employ. Many of you have even visited the sanctuaries as volunteers to help care for the bears.

Our research and education programmes, coupled with strong government partnerships, have led to better protections for wild bears and we’re now helping other wildlife in need. This year alone we’ve rescued seven bears, leopard cat kittens, a crested goshawk, golden jackal and northern red muntjac. 

Prior to COVID lockdown, our wonderful State Support Groups had been busy raising awareness and funds with raffles, stalls and events including bingo, a wine tour, comedy night and even a petanque garden party! When events and visits to our sanctuaries ground to a halt in March, I wasn’t sure how we’d be able to feed and care for the bears without these vital funds. The response we received has been extraordinary. Many of you signed up as Bear Carers and supporters have created online fundraisers, raising funds by donating birthdays or taking on a challenge such as spending a ‘Night in a Cage’.

Each of the past 25 years has brought moments of great joy - there’s nothing better than seeing a rescued bear in their forest enclosure, splashing in a pool or tearing open a coconut. While it hasn’t always been easy - we’ve lost many loved ones along the way and we’re often not sure how we’ll afford the month’s bills - Free the Bears could only have made it to this point thanks to you.

I’m overwhelmed by the support from all around the world for our ‘Night In A Cage’ challenge. Over 50 supporters joined and we raised enough to feed our 236 rescued bears for May and June. In January I was notified I’d been awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia. To receive this award is such a prestigious and wonderful recognition of the work of Free the Bears. Accepting the award on behalf of you, our supporters, makes it even better. Thank you. With much love and bear hugs, Mary.


In the past year we’ve had record numbers of bear rescues. The increased mouths to feed coupled with the loss of fundraising sources due to COVID-19 has led to large funding shortfalls. As a registered charity with DGR status, all donations, Gifts for Bears, Bear Carer donations or bear sponsorships are TAX DEDUCTIBLE (Australia). End of financial year (June 30) is coming soon - please make your donation today. We realise these are tough times for many - you can become a Bear Carer for less than the cost of a coffee per week. If we can find many willing to give a little each month, we’ll make it through these tough times. CLICK HERE become a Bear Carer. Thank you


Cambodia Rescues #208 and #209 were the first rescues of 2020 for Free the Bears, arriving in the first fortnight of January within days of each other. CR#208 is a tiny female sun bear who had scars on all legs, possibly from being hogtied with wire. CR#209 is a four year old male moon bear who arrived to the sanctuary in a cage which had been welded shut, his prison for years. It took a crane and welders to free the poor boy. In February we received another tiny male sun bear cub, Cambodia Resuce #210. All three bears are making a great recovery - CR#210 has already made friends with Trinity, the sun bear cub we rescued late last year who had lost a paw to a wire snare. Both were very timid bears - they’re a great support for each other and their confidence is growing daily.

Our Awareness, Communications and Education Team had a busy first quarter after record numbers of Cambodian high school groups visited for conservation education late last year. In March ACE Team manager Pesei gave a great presentation to the Young Southeast Asia Leadership Initative. Pesei also facilitated the annual Rotary International bicycle donation, providing bicycles to children in the villages surrounding the Cambodia Bear Sanctuary, enabling them to continue their education (many students drop out of school due to lack of transport) which is key to lifting them from a cycle of poverty and addressing other social issues. The team is busy preparing materials for the renovated Discovery Centre, completed earlier this year, a space where visitors to the sanctuary can learn about the work of Free the Bears, issues affecting bears and other wildlife, and how they can get involved. We are very proud of ACE Team member Sorphea who, with support from Free the Bears, graduated from veterinary school. Congratulations Sorphea! Sorphea is already putting her skills to good use at the Wildlife Hospital, helping to keep our bears healthy. Bear Care Tours and Volunteer experiences are currently on hold.

Volunteer Coordinator Jen has been busy rolling out the Volunteer Programme to Laos and Vietnam (all are open for application), helping with improvements to the sanctuary, learning about composting and recycling and has even spent a Night In A Cage to raise funds for bear food. The Vietnam Volunteer Trip scheduled for May 2020 has been postponed to May 2021 (places are still available, please get in touch).

The Research Programme has multiple projects underway - studying wild bear populations, bear personalities, bear chest markings, metabolic rates of bears, traditional healers and behavioural change for bear bile users. Research Manager Brian, who had been incredibly busy travelling from Norway for his PhD to Taiwan for the Bear Specialist Group and then northern Laos laying camera traps, will soon find himself even busier as he has just been promoted to Regional Director of Free the Bears. Congratulations Brian!

We’ve had two sad farewells this year. One of our longest serving members of staff, Khek Rith, passed away. Just days before his stroke, he’d been laughing about how lucky he'd been, having survived being shot twice by the Khmer Rouge, a tuk tuk crash & tuberculosis. Rith was well-loved, his funeral attended by many (with his old tuk tuk in the procession) & lots of tears shed. He will be sadly missed. Our second sad farewell is to Nev Broadis, our former Regional Director. Nev was with Free the Bears for over a decade. He was based in Cambodia however regularly travelled to Vietnam to help build our new sanctuary. Nev contributed such an incredible amount to Free the Bears - anyone who has met him will know of his hard work and dedication, his intelligent quick wit and dry humour, and his great karaoke skills. Thank you Nev, we wish you all the best for the future in your new ventures.


Another whirlwind six months full of rescues, achievements and a little drama has blown by. In December we rescued a female sun bear, taking our total number of bears rescued in Laos in 2019 to 18, far surpassing the previous record of 13 set the previous year. This year we’ve rescued another 2 moon bear cubs and since last the newsletter in November, we’ve added another 5 species to the list of wildlife we’re helping at our Luang Prabang Wildlife Sanctuary - a Bengal slow loris, mainland serow, crested goshawk, golden jackal and northern red muntjac have all been rescued, as well as a litter of tiny orphaned leopard cat kittens, all of which we hope to rehabilitate and release to protected forest.

We’re thrilled to see the Laos government increasingly tackle the illegal wildlife trade and late last year we welcomed our government partners to the Luang Prabang Wildlife Sanctuary for an inspection. The visit went very well with lots of great questions fielded and a touching speech from the Deputy Director-General of PAFO Luang Prabang. We closed the day with a ceremonial burning of confiscated wildlife parts and then set out for our first major release of rehabilitated wildlife, releasing leopard cats, civets and tortoises to a protected forest. After years of hard work, it’s so incredibly rewarding to have committed government partners by our side as we watch animals dart off into the forest for a second chance at life.

The influx of rescues has strained facilities (and finances) over the past 6 months - the construction team has been working non-stop. We finally completed our Quarantine House - our two new rescued cubs becoming its first residents. In November we completed a hastily constructed Stage 2 Cub Nursery (thanks to a generous private donor). Five cubs have moved in and now have plenty of room to run, swim, climb and play. We’re about to complete the main cub nursery, a purpose-built facility to securely and safely care for the youngest and most vulnerable cubs. We’ve also been hard at work installing fencing to improve security, building enclosures for new species and, prior to COVID-19 striking, we were able to complete a beautiful Discovery Centre, made entirely from bamboo!

In December we bid farewell to Dr Kath who was visiting under the Australian Volunteers Program and spent an invaluable year setting up our Wildlife Hospital, keeping our bears healthy, and recruiting and training our Laos vet Dr Meng. Thank you Kath for everything! Dr Carol and Rob, also skilled Australian Volunteers, followed Kath and were making great contributions to the team until they suddenly had to be repatriated. When COVID-19 hit, our Education Team were progressing the “Discover, Love and Protect Laos Wildlife” workshops, teaching alternative livelihood skills to villages surrounding our sanctuaries. Our Laos Volunteer Programme had also just launched. Although activities had to be paused, we’re slowly commencing again as lockdown restrictions ease and we hope that you’ll be able to visit us as volunteers in the near future.

Following one of the driest years on record, the rains have commenced - not a moment too soon as all dams had run dry. Hopefully the rains continue in force, things get back to normal and what has happened the past few months doesn’t constitute a new normal (to be frank, the old normal was tough enough). We’d also like to express our great thanks and best wishes to Nev, our former Regional Director who after over a decade with Free the Bears, has moved on.

Where’s the drama you might ask? In case record rescues, drought, wildlife releases, construction mayhem, a global pandemic and extreme financial pressure isn’t drama enough, throughout 2019 we had a BBC film crew shooting at the Luang Prabang Wildlife Sanctuary. 2019 turned out to be one of the most hectic years since we arrived to Laos. Lucky (or unlucky) for us, most of it was caught on camera - watch out for the BBC Docuseries ‘Bears About The House’. Enjoy!


Our small team in Vietnam has had a busy 6 months. We rescued 2 bears, completed new support facilities, integrated bears into groups and moved them to our Cat Tien Bear Sanctuary, doubled the size of our Awareness, Communications and Education team with a new recruit (welcome Bich) and launched a Volunteer Programme! A high point of the past few months involved rescuing 2 moon bears (Asiatic black bears), both of which had been standing on iron bars in tiny cages for decades and were regularly mutilated to extract bear bile from their gall bladders. Although in different locations, both bears were in Dong Nai province, quite close to our sanctuary.

When we heard about them in February, we were able to make a visit to assess their condition. It was then that we learnt the male had spent 18 years in his tiny cage and 22 years for the female. It was clear they were suffering and in poor health and we immediately started planning their rescue. This is also when COVID-19 concerns started to amplify and as we were about to set out for the rescue, we were notified that transfer of wildlife was banned. Luckily we were given a window of opportunity in the final week of February and we were able to collect the male, and then the female 2 weeks later. Both bears required extensive specialist care and while the male’s condition has improved, very sadly weeks after rescue the female succumbed to a massive, growing cancerous tumour in her chest. We can only hope we provided her some comfort and relief from pain and fear in her final days. A huge thank you to everyone around the world who took an interest in and supported these rescues.

Our ACE Team, Nga and Bich, have created a beautiful new Vietnamese Education Pack to build awareness of the plight of the bears for the next generation of eco-warriors. They also launched our Vietnam Volunteer Programme - when COVID restrictions are eased, please come and help us develop the sanctuary and care for the bears. We have future plans for a Discovery Centre where visitors can learn more about Vietnam’s wildlife and our work (pending institutional funding).

In the first quarter, thanks to a grant from Welttierschutzgesellschaft e.V. (WTG), our construction team put the finishing touches on a new Food and Enrichment Kitchen and Bear Carer Facility, which will improve hygiene and provide greater barriers to external disease (the Vietnamese government have also implemented greater bans on the wildlife trade in light of COVID-19, a positive sign). The construction team also completed enclosures at our new Bear House 3, installing climbing frames and swimming pools. This allowed the final group of bears to be moved to lush, large forest enclosures and has freed up space at the old Rescue Centre, allowing bile farm rescues to recommence.

We received a repurposed ultrasound machine, X-ray generator and scrubs thanks to a kind donation from Earl at Medical PLUS and Veterinary Design Group. This donation of expensive imaging equipment is an invaluable addition to help with diagnostics and treatment, particularly important for geriatric and ex-bile farm bears. Thanks also to veterinary volunteers Dr Peter and Fiona, repatriated after a short but worthwhile visit. In December Mr Dung, our Vietnam Programme Manager, attended a conference in Hanoi to strengthen co-operation and relations between International Non-Government Organisations and the Vietnamese government, a very worthy initiative.

We’re happy to announce that our technical advisor, Jose, has been promoted to Senior Technical Advisor (congratulations Jose) and will start to assist with research while continuing to improve the welfare of our bears. Farewell and massive thanks to our former Regional Director Nev, who spent so much time and effort building the Cat Tien Bear Sanctuary into the amazing place it is today. Good luck Nev, you’ll be missed. 


State Support Group events are on hold. In the meantime, we’d love for supporters to create their own online fundraiser and reach out to family and friends for support. You could ask for donations for your birthday or seek sponsorship to take on a challenge. Facebook and other sites make it easy to create and share a fundraiser. You’ll raise awareness, raise vital funds and inspire others. Visit our website for details. NIGHT IN A CAGE (#NightInACage) On May 9th, over 50 Free the Bears supporters from around the world were sponsored to spend a ‘Night In A Cage’ and get a feeling for what many of our rescued bears have endured for decades (and some bears for their entire lives). Our team raised enough funds to feed all 236 rescued bears in our care for the months of May and June. Anyone, anywhere and at any time can set up their own #NightInACage challenge to raise funds for the bears. We‘ll be arranging another team event in 2021 which we hope you can join. A huge bear hug and thank you to everyone who joined and supported this year’s ‘Night In A Cage’ challenge.


We are seeking someone (or a couple) to coordinate our wonderful team of volunteers. Our SA team does a fantastic job raising funds through stalls at expos, the Royal Adelaide Show, bingo and quiz nights, movie fundraisers and more! While volunteers take on certain events, a coordinator(s) is still needed to communicate with the team via email and meetings, liaise with Perth head office, and make sure everything runs smoothly. Don’t worry, you won’t be alone as support is given from head office, the Adelaide volunteer team, and current coordinators Krys & Alan will be around to lend a hand if needed. For more info email: A huge THANK YOU to Krys & Alan who did an amazing job coordinating the SA Support Group for over 3 years. They went above and beyond, putting in countless hours to make sure thousands of dollars were raised for the bears. They will now be stepping back as coordinators though are remaining as volunteers to assist the SA team. BIG BEAR HUGS Krys & Alan!

COVER MODEL: #MaryTheSunBear, star of BBC's #BearsAboutTheHouse