Free the Bears - Our Story

In 1993, Perth grandmother Mary Hutton's son Simon insisted she join him to watch a television program that would change her life. The segment contained horrifying footage of moon bears (Asiatic Black bears) held in coffin sized cages unable to move, with dirty catheters inserted directly into their gall bladder to 'milk' their bile (read more about bear bile farming here).

Mary learned that thousands of bears were being held in these horrifying conditions throughout Asia, regularly milked for their bile to be used in traditional medicines. 

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”. She collected thousands of signatures and a group of like-minded people determined to help bears and in 1995 registered Free the Bears Fund as a not-for-profit charity (Charity No: A1004507U).

As Mary organised raffles, film nights and other events to raise awareness about the plight of Asia’s bears, word of her work spread and requests for help arrived. After rescuing a pair of sun bears from Cambodia, having seen there were more bears in need, Mary began construction of the Cambodian Bear Sanctuary. 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.

A telephone call from India led to Free the Bears joining Wildlife SOS and International Animal Rescue in the seemingly impossible challenge of freeing India’s dancing bears. The first group of 25 bears were rescued on Christmas Eve of 2002. Over the next 7 years Free the Bears helped provide seed money for more than 500 dancing bear families to set up new livelihoods. In 2009 the last of India’s dancing bears was handed over and the centuries old tradition was ended.

2003 saw the opening of a Bear Rescue Centre in Luang Prabang, Laos. In 2005, when Mary's son Simon was fatally injured after being knocked down by a car while building the Cambodia Bear Sanctuary, Mary wasn't sure she could continue. But she knew Simon would want her to continue to help the bears and we opened a third Bear Rescue Centre in Cat Tien National Park, Vietnam, in 2008.

In 2017 we added the multi-species Luang Prabang Wildlife Sanctuary. Expansion of the sanctuaries in all 3 countries continues as we cater to additional rescues. In 2010, Free the Bears was registered as a charity in the United Kingdom (Charity number: 1135682).

Free the Bears has helped rescue over 1,000 bears of the world's most vulnerable bear species (sun bears, moon bears and sloth bears) and we provide ongoing care to hundreds of rescued sun bears and moon bears at the sanctuaries we operate in three countries.

For as long as there are bears in need, Free the Bears will strive to stop their suffering. As well as rescue and rehabilitation, we continue to tackle the threats to Asia's bears. These threats are numerous and endemic, but with consistent effort from local communities up to national governments, we believe ending the suffering of bears is achievable.

Besides habitat loss, one of the main threats to bears in Asia is the illegal wildlife trade. Many of our rescued bears are rescued from poachers, exotic pet owners, or people planning to use them in traditional medicine. Poachers kill or capture bears via hunting or snare traps, selling them locally or smuggling them abroad.

Another grave threat to Asia's bears are bear bile farms. Despite bear bile farming becoming illegal in the countries in which we operate (Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia), it is estimated less than 200 bears remain in bear bile farms in Vietnam (down from 4,300 in 2005, however, less than 400 have been rescued in this period) and under 100 in Laos (2023 estimates). There are an estimated 10,000 bears in bile farms in China. It is suspected that almost all bears in Vietnam and Laos bile farms were taken from the wild and additional reports indicate that wild bear numbers are plummeting.

To tackle this problem, Free the Bears and other wildlife conservation organisations are working with governments to strengthen laws and increase capacity for enforcement, working with traditional medicine practitioners to promote synthetic and herbal alternatives to bear bile, and addressing consumer demand with education campaigns about the cruelty inflicted upon bears in farms.

We're beginning to see positive results from these efforts. In a recent study of Vietnamese bear bile farmers, farmers reported a substantial reduction in consumer demand for bear bile. Worryingly, they also reported a substantial reduction in food budgets for bears, increasing the urgency to rescue these bears before it's too late.

We never pay for bears (paying for bears would contribute to a market for wildlife). We work with government authorities who confiscate bears (and other illegally held wildlife), handing them over to Free the Bears for rescue and rehabilitation. 

Free the Bears works with communities, schools and organisations across Asia to change attitudes and raise awareness of the wildlife trade. We work with universities and other institutions who conduct critical research. We also work with government, law enforcement agencies and other charities to create and implement a framework to combat wildlife traders.

Despite each country facing a unique set of challenges and issues to overcome, we will continually strive to achieve our mission of protecting, preserving and enriching the lives of bears throughout the world. Free the Bears.

Mary’s selfless efforts have been acknowledged with Pride of Australia awards, an Honorary Doctorate and Medal of the Order of Australia. She’s been an Australian of the Year finalist on multiple occasions. Now in her 80’s, Mary continues to Free the Bears from our Head Office, located in the garage of her Perth, Australia home. Mary has always said that with true belief one person can make a difference, but with help from others along the way, so much more can be achieved. With an end to bear bile farming in sight. your support is very much appreciated.