People can be a sick, perverted species. This much I know is true. Thankfully there are many kind souls on this planet that dedicate their lives to helping the less fortunate. In this particular circumstance, the less fortunate are of the bear variety, and the organization that’s helping them in Asia is Free the Bears Laos.
I had an opportunity to visit Free the Bears Laos rescue centre as a day-trip from Luang Prabang. Since Free the Bears Laos was first started, they’ve saved 38 bears in total.
So from what exactly do the bears need saving? Many of the bears that have been rescued through the centre have lived the bulk of their lives in cages, victims of the bear bile trade — a practice I’m ashamed to say I never knew existed until I visited the Free the Bears Laos Rescue Centre.
So what exactly is the bear bile trade? Basically, a bear is either caged and hooked up to a catheter 24/7, which drains the bile produced from its liver that is stored in its gall bladder, or is drugged and then hoisted onto an operating table to have the bile removed en masse. Bear bile is used in traditional Chinese medicine as a remedy for a variety of ailments — impotence, eye problems, liver and heart disease, and even the lowly hangover. Michigan State University reported that since the practice of bear bile farming has become so widespread, there’s actually a surplus of bear bile available, and now farmers are using it in shampoo, tea, wine, and even throat lozenges to drum up new customers.
Take a look at the video from National Geographic which explains the process, and the fight against the trade, in more detail.
If you or anyone you know is using products that contain bear bile, just know that there are alternatives. Check out this list of herbal alternatives. And wouldn’t you rather go the natural route than have some poor animal tortured its entire life so you can shake a lousy hangover? Think about it.
The bears at Free the Bears Laos seemed pretty content while I was there. There is no way that they would survive back in the wild since they’ve had so much human interaction. The space they are given to roam around freely is a vast improvement over the cages in which they were previously confined.
The goal of Free the Bears is not only to, well, free the bears, but also to educate the public about the conservation status of each bear species, and the problems that each faces worldwide.
The centre also provides neat little overviews of each of the bears that currently call Tat Si Kuang home.
It’s worth noting that admission to Free The Bears Laos (officially titled the Tat Kuang Si Bear Rescue Centre) is included with your admission ticket for the Kuang SI Waterfalls. In fact you have to walk through it to get to the falls. It’s also worth noting that not one penny of that admission ticket money goes towards Free the Bears Laos.
Zip. Zilch. Nada.
So come armed with some extra Laotian Kip to purchase a few souvenirs to help out a worthy cause.
I bought a t-shirt for my niece (you’re welcome Sarah) and a nifty Free the Bears baseball cap that I’m sure will be the envy of hefty, hairy men everywhere.
If you’d like to get involved, you can make a one-time donation, or even sponsor a bear for a year through the Free the Bears website. They’ve even got a generous donor who will match any contributions you make dollar-for-dollar.
If you have more time on your hands than money, Free the Beers is always looking for folks to volunteer with Free the Bears at their rescue centre in Cambodia. Contact them directly to see if there are any opportunities to volunteer at the centre in Laos.