If there is a god of small things, it could be said to have taken up residence, for a while at least, in a remote valley in the northern highlands of Vietnam. A lush forest canopy spreads evenly up the slopes of the surrounding hills. On the valley floor sits a group of five single-storey concrete sheds with corrugated iron roofs, each opening onto a broad grassy enclosure. Dotted among the trees in the enclosures is an array of apparatus: platforms, posts, tripods, hammocks, swings. The enclosure in front of me also has a pool, and a bridge spanning a hoop of tunnel. At 2 p.m., a bell rings. The shed doors open and a gang of Asiatic black bears (Ursus thibetanus), easily identifiable by the pale crescents splashed across the dark fur of their chests, bundles out into the steamy April sunshine. Muzzles flickering aloft, they scent lunch: the fruit and veg the keepers have just deposited in searchable nooks and crannies around the enclosure. One of them hesitates for a second as she’s about to step off the shed’s concrete apron onto the grass. She doesn’t quite know what to make of the spongy green stuff. Is it safe to tread on?
This is no ordinary zoo. In fact, it’s not a zoo at all. For one thing, there are no visitors, except on open days. For another, it houses members of a single species only. The sheds, enclosures, and an array of other buildings constitute the Tam Dao bear sanctuary and rescue centre, owned and operated by AnimalsAsia, a charity founded in 1998 which currently operates in many parts of China and Vietnam in partnership with government, NGOs and grassroots animal welfare organisations. The land on which the sanctuary stands was secured in perpetuity in 2013, when the then prime minister, Nguyễn Tấn Dũng, intervened to overrule plans to turn it into a holiday resort.
The Asiatic black bear, sometimes known as the moon bear, is an endangered species. Bile extracted from these animals contains high levels of ursodeoxycholic acid (UDCA), which has seemed effective enough in treating liver and gall bladder conditions, as well as various other ailments, to have remained a staple of traditional Asian medicine for thousands of years. Recent research has cast doubt on its medical properties, especially when contaminated by pus during the process of extraction. That process is a form of torture. Asiatic black bears were once hunted for their gall bladders. But in the 1980s, as their numbers declined, governments in China, Vietnam and North and South Korea began to encourage bear-bile farming as a way to satisfy demand without further threats to wildlife, and to promote economic growth. Surplus supplies have since been used in shampoo, toothpaste, wine, tea, and a variety of tonics. The bears on these farms are kept in tiny cages, sometimes so small that they’re unable even to turn round or stand on all fours, and the bile is extracted by a variety of invasive methods which cause severe infection as well as damage to abdominal organs. Hence the pus in the medicine. Some bears are caged as cubs, and remain in captivity for twenty years or more. The bears arriving at Tam Dao suffer from a range of physical ailments caused by the conditions in which they have been kept: arthritis, heart disease, tumours, traumatic injury, teeth and hair loss, emaciation. Their feet are cracked and sore because metal bars are all they have had to stand on. They’re terrified, and angry.
The aim of the sanctuaries at Tam Dao and at Chengdu in China is, as the AnimalsAsia website puts it, to ‘provide the bears with comfortable dens and semi-natural enclosures where they are able to recover in safety and spend the remaining years of their lives in the company of other bears’. The human threat to wildlife is, of course, worldwide and pandemic. The emergence of a sanctuary ‘movement’ is one response to that threat. The compromised space of the sanctuary enables members of the human species to coexist with members of a non-human species in ways that are of lasting mutual benefit. Tam Dao currently houses 184 bears; more than ninety people work there. Its existence is proof that acts of human kindness directed at creatures of another kind can make a social, cultural, even a political difference. In 2017, after four years of negotiation, Vietnam’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development agreed to close down the bile farms. By 2022, all caged bears in the country will (or should) have been transferred to one of the rescue centres that AnimalsAsia currently operates or is proposing to build. Crucial to that agreement was the decision taken in 2015 by the Vietnamese Traditional Medicine Association to phase out bear-bile prescriptions by 2020, and to promote alternative herbal remedies instead. When the bears at Tam Dao have lived the remainder of their lives in peace, the facility will close. No one doubts that during those years the god of large things will continue to wreak havoc in the world beyond the valley. Sanctuaries, evidently, are not the solution to the wholesale destruction of natural habitats and the biodiversity they sustain. But if a solution to that does emerge, or even half a solution, it is likely to resemble in some of its aspects what the sanctuaries already do: the management of wild things, wherever possible without direct intervention.
Tam Dao also houses sun bears (Helarctos malayanus): smallish creatures with short, sleek coats, mustard-coloured muzzles and very long tongues which they use to probe for insects. But it was the moon bears that grabbed me, getting on for twenty years ago, when I first came across them in publicity for AnimalsAsia. They’re larger, shaggier, more bear-like: not monumental, in the polar (Ursus maritimus) or grizzly (Ursus arctos horribilis) mould, but difficult to take your eyes off once you’ve seen them in action. Their profile has been raised since then, though not quite to the boutique fauna levels of the giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca). Briar and Bramble, stars of the animated cartoon Boonie Bears, the most popular children’s programme on Chinese TV, display the moon bear’s distinctive pale crescent on their chests. Briar and Bramble’s mission is to prevent Logger Vick from destroying their forest habitat – luckily for them, he has yet to take an interest in their gall bladders. Thanks to AnimalsAsia, I knew the moon bear story off by heart. But I had no idea, really, what a bear is. The purpose of my visit to Tam Dao was to meet some in the flesh.
Bears are notable by their absence from the many compelling and highly informative studies of animal intelligence, emotional capacity and social awareness that constitute a branch of the new nature writing. They don’t appear to rank high among animal overachievers, having thus far failed to assemble toolkits, mourn their dead, navigate by echolocation or waggle-dance complex data to one another. Not doing any of the really cool stuff has meant that they remain at the mercy of our less elaborate fantasies. There is a particular and revealing contradiction in the way bearness has been marketed in Western consumer cultures. Bears, we have been led to believe, are super-cuddly – right up until the moment when they rip your throat out.
For most people, the cuddles came first, in the guise of a four-legged comfort blanket with button eyes, satellite-dish ears and a blob of black velvet for a nose. So much depends on the foundational warmth of that embrace. It’s the main reason there are more cartoon bears around than you can shake a marmalade sandwich at. Some of these grow up to flog stuff on TV. I can remember a time when ursine influencers were reliably geezerish, like Hofmeister’s George in his pork-pie hat and yellow satin jacket (‘For a great lager, follow the bear’). But cuddliness resumed in the 1990s, in successive Coca-Cola Christmas campaigns, and hasn’t let up since. Bears distribute their weight towards their hind legs, and the resulting slinky ungainliness is a gift to animation. Cartoon bears melt hearts by contriving to lope and shuffle at the same time.
But it all began in violence; or, rather, in a disavowal of violence. It’s well known that teddy bears are named after the 26th president of the United States, Theodore (‘Teddy’) Roosevelt. Accounts of the association vary, but they all date it to November 1902, when Roosevelt, a ‘keen’ sportsman and conservationist, was hunting bears in Mississippi. Apparently, he lucked out. At the end of the day, his tracker, the African-American ex-Confederate scout Holt Collier, found one for him and tied it to a tree. Roosevelt declined to shoot the animal, on the grounds that to do so under such circumstances would be unchivalrous. On 16 November, the Washington Post printed a cartoon by Clifford Berryman showing a magnanimous Roosevelt in the foreground, and behind him a small and rather startled bear on a leash. Morris and Rose Michtom, who ran a store in Brooklyn, created a novelty toy based on the cartoon – advertising it, with the president’s consent, as ‘Teddy’s Bear’. The bear Teddy did not shoot died anyway.
There has been a lot of violence to disavow. Grizzlies loom large in North American history, folklore and popular culture as the exemplification of man-hating ferocity, Moby-Dick with claws. One of Collier’s claims to fame was that he had accounted for more bears in his time than Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone put together. But getting shot, just like all the other bears before you, is hardly proof of ferocity. We want to believe that the animal had it coming. In 1823, the frontiersman and fur trapper Hugh Glass took part in an expedition up the Missouri River; while scouting for game, he surprised a grizzly bear with two cubs to protect. He got her in the end but suffered a severe mauling. Left for dead by his companions, he somehow made it back to Fort Kiowa in South Dakota, two hundred miles away, with a view to revenging himself on those who had abandoned him. The legend proved as resilient as the man. Its more recent reiterations include two Hollywood blockbusters: Man in the Wilderness (1971) and the multiple Oscar-winning The Revenant (2015). In both films, the assault occurs early on, to visceral effect, and is swiftly forgotten as a flintlock-themed revenger’s tragedy drifts on for a couple of hours through photogenic wilderness. Man in the Wilderness, which stars Richard Harris, is Woodstock-era to the core: the hero’s wounds more or less heal themselves, enabling him to undertake a spot of anthropological fieldwork on Native American practices on the way home and, even more bizarrely, to adopt a white rabbit with a broken leg (Grace Slick meets Supervet). The Revenant, by contrast, mounts an unblushingly sadomasochistic inquiry into the degree of punishment the male body (well, Leonardo DiCaprio’s) can take without ceasing to be an object of desire. The bear’s sole function is to have inflicted wounds which, far from healing themselves, fester and gleam throughout as only a fetish can. Needless to say, neither of these testaments to the nobility of human suffering takes any interest at all in the fate of the orphaned cubs.
Life hurried to imitate art. In October 2016, Todd Orr was hunting elk in Montana when a grizzly attacked him. Like Glass, he escaped by playing dead. Unlike Glass, he paused on his way to hospital to post on his Facebook page a video of the picturesque injuries he had suffered to his scalp and arm. In no time at all the area was plastered with ‘Todd Orr for President’ posters. Had he run, there would have been scope for a reprise of Reagan’s 1984 presidential election campaign ad, in which a wild bear features as the sort of ogreish (Soviet Russian) predator it takes a righteously locked-and-loaded mentality to see off.
Others have not been so lucky. Timothy Treadwell, for example, an ardent conservationist and would-be bear-whisperer, ended up in a documentary by Werner Herzog, the queasily engrossing Grizzly Man (2005). Treadwell spent 13 summers camping among the grizzlies in Alaska’s Katmai National Park and Preserve. During the last five of these, he recorded more than one hundred hours of video footage, which provide the raw material for Herzog’s film. Treadwell loved ‘his’ bears with a sickly intensity. It’s no surprise to find a teddy propped up in a corner of his tent. Herzog, philosopher of the punk sublime, feels duty-bound to take a dim view of all this. The ‘common denominator’ of the universe, he declares, is not harmony, as Treadwell had wilfully supposed, but ‘chaos, hostility and murder’. It may not have been quite that simple. The only way Treadwell could conceal from himself the abstractness of his love for the bears was to create around them an equal and opposite abstraction, also masquerading as real: a vision, precisely, of the universe as ‘chaos, hostility and murder’. In some of the most revealing footage in the film, he proclaims himself a ‘samurai’ warrior so formidable that even the bears will have to acknowledge his superiority. ‘If I show weakness,’ he announces, ‘I’m dead.’ Treadwell wanted to cuddle the bears, and he wanted to be able to kill without hesitation, as they did: and for the one feeling not to know about the other. That, perhaps, is our problem with animals; or more exactly the problem our relationship with them could be said to articulate. In 2003, paying a final visit to his Katmai flock at the end of the summer, Treadwell was mauled to death and eaten by a newcomer to the area, a bear that had no reason to trust him. His girlfriend, Amie Huguenard, suffered the same fate.
According to Herzog, Treadwell sought a ‘primal encounter’ with bearness. As the phrase suggests, part of our problem with animals, now, may lie in the therapeutic gloss the idea of encounter acquired in the 1960s. Animal-assisted therapy is a serious proposition these days, and one that involves a good deal of cuddling. But the term ‘encounter’ derives from the Latin in + contra. For many centuries, to encounter someone was to meet them as an obstacle, or an adversary in battle. To find out what bearness is, Treadwell reckoned, you have to go up against it, look it in the eye. Others, less foolhardy, but just as committed to the conservationist cause, have thought the same. In Rewilding (2017), the much travelled naturalist Nick Baker describes a near miss on a footpath in Alaska. Baker was sampling a ‘salmon-pink berry’ he had just picked when his guide yanked him off the path into some bushes. A minute or so later, a bear ambled past. ‘I could see, hear, smell, feel, almost taste bear – every primeval link, every neuron I possessed, woke up in an instant.’ The experience changed his choice of vocation. ‘My epiphany had a bear in it.’ Grizzlies from the Katmai peninsula also appear to compelling effect in Olly & Suzi: Arctic Desert Ocean Jungle (2003), the most substantial publication to date by a pair of artists who have spent the last thirty years painting and photographing endangered species in the wild. At once spectral and gravid, dramatically unfinished, the images convince us that they could only ever have arisen out of encounter. These, too, are epiphanies with animals in them.
I did meet a bear in the flesh at Tam Dao. She was unconscious at the time, stretched out on a table in the medical facility awaiting a routine health check. I couldn’t help but see, hear, smell and feel her, because I’d grabbed a great fold of skin in both hands in order to help turn her onto her side. Bear flesh has a glutinous heft: in that respect, at least, the cartoons do not lie. In other respects, she wasn’t quite the animal I’d expected. A moon bear’s plentiful fur, which from a distance looks like a smooth, dense pelt, as strokeable as a cat’s, is in fact wiry and coarse. Viewed close up, it has the streakiness of a combover. Sometimes you see an animal more accurately by not looking it in the eye. Asiatic black bears appear on the exquisite ink and colour screens painted by the Republican-era Chinese painter Liu Kuiling (1885-1967) for display in the domestic interiors of the merchant class in his hometown, the treaty port of Tianjin, in north-eastern China. Liu’s style synthesised Chinese calligraphic technique with European representational method and the influence of contemporary Japanese artists. His bears turn away from the viewer, going about their business, often up or at the base of a tree. They’re all rump, and paw, and the back of an ear. And their fur has that characteristic streakiness. How he knew all this, I’ve no idea.
At Tam Dao, after the 2 p.m. scramble for lunch has subsided, sleepiness descends on the enclosure. In a remote corner one of the inmates paces up and down the same narrow, beaten strip of earth, a vortex of ineradicable agitation. Elsewhere, recumbency prevails, punctuated by a wallow in the pond, or a minute or two of gently gyratory sit-down pilates. Then, gradually, the more energetic stir themselves, for sociability, or a brief canter, or mock combat. A suave hydraulic conjuring trick hoists the gladiators onto their hind legs. As they loom opposite each other, squaring up expansively, the pale crescents splashed across their chests crack open. Your heart stops a little at a self-disclosure as effusive as a star shell bursting or a flag shaken out. The loveliness is so casual.
Of course, they’re not performing for us. They don’t hold back, as they wrestle and swipe, or gnaw savagely at an exposed bit of neck or shoulder. Yet they clearly know the difference between a playful nip and a wounding bite; and they have a way of letting each other know that they know, as dogs do when they fight for fun, or chimpanzees. They communicate about communication. One battle in particular held my attention as it spooled and unspooled for fifteen minutes or so, over, through and around an elaborate array of obstacles, each in turn a catalyst for experiment and improvisation. It seemed to make no difference at all to the battle’s intensity and scope that the more venturesome of the two jazzers involved had previously lost a limb. What the hell, there he was, becoming someone his genes had not fully intended him to be. It isn’t about bearness. It’s about the expressive quality of an animal’s technical co-operation, alone or as the member of a group, with the environment it is imagining its way into. The bears at Tam Dao haven’t just survived. They’re beginning their lives all over again.