Difference Maker

Mary Hutton frees Asia's endangered bears from lives of torment

By creating bear sanctuaries in Cambodia and India, Mary Hutton has kept endangered bears from being exploited in many cruel ways.

By , Correspondent

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    Mary Hutton with Milli, an Asiatic black endangered bear cub rescued from the illegal wildlife trade, in Phnom Tamao, Cambodia.
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James and his sister Rose were discovered hog-tied and half-starved in a wildlife trafficker's truck. Both Asiatic black bear cubs would lose a paw to injuries inflicted by poachers' snares.

Archie and Emily were brought from Battambang in northwest Cambodia, where they were confiscated by a wildlife rescue team from a man who was "milking" the bears for their bile in his garage.

Kong was kept as a pet in a bar, his sight permanently damaged from the meager diet of leftovers and beer. Holly was rescued from a restaurant just as the nine-month-old cub was about to be used as ingredients for a local delicacy – bear paw soup.

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At Mary Hutton's bear sanctuary in Phnom Tamao, 25 miles south of Cambodia's capital, Phnom Penh, all the furry residents were once destined for a life of misery or an early death.

Yet thanks to the Australian woman's Free the Bears Fund, Ms. Hutton's ursine protégés – 106 so far and counting – now live happily on 17 acres of landscaped woodland with scenic rocky outcrops.

Endearing creatures with shambling gaits and mischievous temperaments, the bears traipse aerial walkways, splash about in pools, doze in their dens, or rummage for honey-sprinkled delicacies stuffed into lengths of bamboo in stimulating games of hide-and-seek devised by keepers. Even bears missing a paw or forelimb have learned to climb again.

"None of these bears had a hope," Hutton says, standing beside a nursery where rescued cubs run amok. "Now they have a second chance of life."

So do hundreds of other Asiatic black bears, sun bears, and sloth bears – three highly endangered species – in India, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and Indonesia. In each country, Save the Bears runs sanctuaries for animals rescued from the flourishing illegal wildlife and pet trades.

"Each bear has a huge character bursting to get out," says Matt Hunt, the charity's program manager. "It's amazing to watch terrified, emaciated animals shivering in a corner come alive and throw themselves headfirst into play."

Hutton, who lives in Perth, Australia, is on a visit to catch up with developments and "thank keepers for their hard work." One of her Cambodian helpers, who hand-raises cubs, once made a living preparing bear paws for soup.

Yet Hutton, a gracious, unassuming woman, plays down her achievements. "Without people's help I couldn't have done a thing," she stresses.

"She's fantastic, and they've done a great job," notes Nick Marx, a veteran of wildlife rescue operations who works in Cambodia for the US-based Wildlife Alliance. "Often you confiscate a bear and think, 'He's not gonna make it.' Many animals would be dead without Free the Bears [where] each one of them gets a chance."

In 1993, then a housewife and grandmother, she saw an Australian TV report showing an Asiatic black bear in a tiny cage with a crude iron catheter inserted into its gallbladder to drain its bile for traditional Chinese medicine.

"It got to me," Hutton recalls, "that distraught little bear banging its head against the bars of its cage." Appalled, she drew up a petition and, standing outside a shopping mall in Perth, asked passersby to sign it.

She then enlisted veterinarians across Australia for her campaign and within weeks collected hundreds of thousands of signatures. Her initiative even reached the country's parliament.

Encouraged, she set up Free the Bears, which she still oversees from her home's garage, now converted into an office. She began soliciting donations. "Raffles, [bake sales], movie nights, collection [boxes]; you name it, we did it," Hutton says. "Still do."

Although she's raised millions of dollars, Hutton doesn't take a salary. She and her husband live modestly on his military pension.

As her drive became publicized, Hutton says, "People started calling me up: Can you help this bear, that bear, the other bear?"

One caller was an Aussie expat in Cambodia, a country that to her "might have been on the moon." He'd just bought three sun bear cubs at a Phnom Penh market in a bid to save them, but didn't know what to do with them.

So Hutton began petitioning Cambodia's government for permission to bring them to Australia. In 1997, Mr. Hobbs, Victoria, and Lucille arrived in Sydney's Taronga Zoo, as the country's first-ever sun bears.

Others would soon follow.

Yet numerous other abused bears there still needed help. So she "took a change of underwear, socks, and sunscreen," and off she went to Cambodia. Over the years she would face coups, culture shocks, and reluctant traders. In 2005 her son, Simon, the fund's project director, was run over and killed in Phnom Penh.

She plowed on.

In India, the plucky, diminutive Hutton played a pivotal role in ending the centuries-old tradition of "bear dancing," a cruel practice in which sloth bears are forced to hop on their hind legs while itinerant beggars tug at a rope driven through their muzzles.

Last December, Hutton stood on a dusty road outside a bear sanctuary she'd helped create near Bangalore, India, to welcome in Raju – the latest of more than 600 dancing bears that Save the Bears has rescued over the years in partnership with local wildlife officials. She removed the brass ring from Raju's scarred nose and set him loose in the sanctuary's woods.

Through Free the Bears' microloan program, the animals' handlers, who belong to an impoverished, low-caste ethnic group, move into new jobs as auto-rickshaw drivers, food vendors, handymen, bicycle repairmen, and carpet weavers.

There's still plenty of work ahead for Hutton. "I want to save every single bear I can," she says.

• Learn more at www.freethebears.org.au

* Go here for more stories about people making a difference.
 

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