The first thing you notice before your eyes have adjusted to the gloom is the strong musky smell.
But no matter how strong the distinctive bear aroma, perhaps the most overwhelming and pervasive assault on the senses is the sense of hopelessness and despair.
We are at a bear farm in the village of Phúc Thọ. There is little to announce its presence, a banner flutters from the branch of a roadside tree while a nondescript red, white and blue sign sits inconspicuously on the sidewalk. Both could easily be missed by all but the most observant for we are in the middle of the village, a collection of shops and residential homes not dissimilar to the bear farm.
At first glance, then, the bear farm looks like any large home with a court yard.
But the apparent illusion of pleasant rural living obscures a darker side. Pull the doors open and rusty cages fill most of the space inside. In the gloom, bears shuffle around in their cramped cages. Theirs are repetitive movements that display the hallmarks of stress. It looks obsessive and compulsive, the kind of tics a prisoner in solitary confinement would inevitably develop being locked up 24×7.
To even the untrained eye these bears look like pale imitations of what they should be had they lived in the wild. They appear skinny for their size and have bald patches on their bodies.
One can only guess at what their life is like. And even then our imaginations probably fall far short of the reality that these bear endure.
What is obvious is that bears cannot live their lives as bears cooped up in a metal cage. It must be like a living death. There is no justification to be had in saying “Well, it is all they know…”
The crux of the matter is that bears like the one transferred to the Soc Son wildlife rescue center had potential. They did nothing to deserve this cruel, inhumane and unnatural punishment meted out to them. For, ultimately, that must be how it is viewed in any civilized society. Theirs is not a life. It’s barely an existence; more a cramped, mind-numbing waiting room for the final release of death. The bars that trap them are as much a coffin as a cage.
The question we should ask ourselves is: should we as a supposedly modern and progressive society allow wildlife to be exploited in this way?
Keeping animals in these conditions is medieval. We as a society should be ashamed that we can tolerate this happening a moment longer.
Ultimately, though, it is too late for most captive bears. Their fate is sealed. But we can take action to ensure that no more bears are taken from the wild: that future generations of bears, or any wildlife for that matter, get to live their lives out as nature intended. They have evolved to be in the wild, to interact with other bears and live full and enriched lives, not imprisoned as zombie-fied replicas that are underfed, dehydrated and suffering long term physical and psychological problems.