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.
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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.Skip to next paragraph
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"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