Jigsaw the Moon Bear.

Jigsaw the Moon Bear.

I am an aunty to a moon bear called Jigsaw.  Jigsaw is a very attentive nephew.  He writes me letters, sends emails and postcards, and keeps me up to date with all the milestones in his life.  He sends me the latest gossip about his bear buddies and he loves getting presents.

Not many people have a moon bear for a nephew, so I consider myself very lucky, especially as I only have one, there is a shortage of nephews in my life.  So how did I become an Aunty to a moon bear?

Some years ago when I was travelling in the Caucasus, I met Sal, a fellow traveller.  We were strolling, along a street in Yerevan, Armenia.  I think we were on our way to a brandy tasting – at 9am because we were bumped from our more civilized time of late afternoon because Hilary Clinton was visiting, and our time was required for her.  The brandy (cognac if we were in France) was excellent, and very palatable even at 9am.  I digress.

The conversation turned to moon bears, as it does when walking around Yerevan.  I had never heard of the barbaric practice of keeping moon bears in small cages and extracting their bile, for “medicinal” purposes. Lets just say that there are many other herbal and synthetic remedies available these days which don’t require the torture of bears.

By the time we got to the brandy, I was so appalled to hear that bears are kept in small cages all their lives.  There are various methods of extracting their bile.  All methods are cruel and inhumane.  One method though, which still gives me nightmares is where a wide metal belt is strapped onto the bear and a catheter fixed permanently in place.  I possibly had more brandy than was advisable for that time in the morning.

It turned out that some years previously Sal had raised the funds necessary to rescue a moon bear from this horrendous existence.  The bear she rescued was Jigsaw.  She now raises funds to ensure that Jigsaw is a “no cost bear”.  Why Jigsaw?  Well every year Sal creates a jigsaw puzzle from an image of jigsaw.  Donations are pooled until they reach the set amount to turn over one piece of the puzzle.  To see more about Sal’s tireless efforts to ensure that Jigsaw is a no cost bear visit https://adoptamoonbear.com

Jigsaw relaxing in a hammock with a snack.

So began my love affair with Jigsaw, and my journey towards visiting Jigsaw at the Tam Dao sanctuary near Hanoi in Vietnam, which is run by Animals Asia – and this is a whole different story.  Visit https://www.animalsasia.org to see how and why this sanctuary, and a sanctuary in China became a reality, due to the vision of Jill Robinson.

Three years after I met Sal, she organized a trip to Vietnam, the highlight of which was to meet Jigsaw and his bear buddies at Tam Dao.

I arrived at Tam Dao on the morning of our first visit feeling very happy to meet Jigsaw, but not without a little anxiety about how I would feel about bears in a sanctuary (and the bears not being able to sh.t in the woods), as one of the Animals Asia T shirts suggested was ideal. Obviously though, the sanctuary would have to be so much better for the bears than a cage on a bile farm.  Crossing this river to enter the sanctuary, my anxiety abated. The bears had beautiful surroundings.


Catching sight of the first bears playing in their enclosure was a very moving experience.  It was a far cry from living in a cage.  Rollicking about, climbing on platforms, jostling each other for a share of the leaves that one of them had obtained from a tree in the enclosure, wrestling, playing with their toys – they were joyful and a joy to watch.

Onwards to meet Jigsaw.

We were going to help hide food in the outdoor enclosure where Jigsaw lives, while the bears were in their dens.  First we had to stuff kongs with food.

Sal had organized for us to acquire a supply of large kongs.  Kongs are an animal toy in which food items can be hidden.  They are used at Tam Dao as one method of hiding food around the sanctuary for bears to hunt out.  Since they are made for dogs, the bears manage to destroy them relatively easily, so a constant supply are needed.

Left: Kongs ready to be filled with food. Right: Sal at work.

As we entered the enclosure, I sincerely hoped that the latches on the bear’s dens were all secure.  Even though the bears look very cuddly and cute, I fear they would not consider me cuddly and cute – more likely a person shaped kong stuffed with bear food.

Hiding food around the enclosure was fun, albeit with one eye on the den doors.  Carrots in the holes of the various structure, apples on top of poles, kongs and other food all out of sight, requiring the bears to forage.

Some bears raced out of their dens to start the food hunt immediately.  Others took their time.  They appeared to have a plan.  Some went to the far reaches of the enclosure, and worked their way in, while others started near the dens and worked their way out.  I could not pick out Jigsaw – he had to be pointed out.  He was a bear with a plan to work his way out slowly.  He found a kong near his den, and was happy with that for a while.

Out and racing – other than Jigsaw who happily found a kong near her den.

Bears were pulling carrots out of their hiding places, very delicately.  They were foraging around rocks and climbing on platforms to reach hidden food.  They were all bears on a mission.

After the initial activity, some bears continued foraging, others went off to play, swim and relax.  They have pools, hammocks, swings, trees to climb – in fact everything a bear could desire.  One bear took his kong into the pool and lay on his back, still trying to hook food out.  Jigsaw played with a sack.

Tam Dao also has a hospital and a quarantine area.  Animals Asia had just received some newly rescued bears, and we were able to visit them in the quarantine section.  Not for the faint hearted.  The distress of the bears was palpable.  Not only do they have physical injuries, but their mental health suffers.  Some bears were rocking, some striding up and down, up and down.  All had injuries.  One bear seemed to be beyond help.  Little Kay looked as if she had lost the will to live. She had no hair, she was injured, was just lying in her enclosure.  The heat was bothering her, so she was provided with fans, and was hosed down when she became too distressed.

I was very happy to hear that Little Kay recovered.

I like to think that as we left, Jigsaw was waving to his Aunties, and blowing kisses to Sal, requesting that we come to visit again soon.

Wine, lots of wine was required to restore my equilubrium that night.