The illegal pet trade is big business in many parts of the world; exotic animals are valued for their rarity and uniqueness. But although the creatures are easily sold when young, they often surprise their private keepers when they get older, bigger and act like the wild animals they are. As a result, then, they get sold again or abandoned.
Sadly, wildlife black markets are abundant in Southeast Asia, and it was in Laos that a family purchased a sun bear cub they called Miss Vientiane, or “Little Missy.” It’s unknown how she came to be on the market in the first place, but most likely she was captured from the forest and torn away from her mother.
Indeed, sun bears, or Helarctos malayanus, live in Southeast Asia’s tropical forests. Their population, however, has decreased by over 30 percent in the last three decades due to deforestation and poaching. The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (ICUN) classifies the bear as vulnerable.
And Little Missy’s keepers must have grossly misjudged how to house a wild bear. Little Missy, naturally, wasn’t a living teddy bear and caging her didn’t help her social skills. Therefore, the family eventually decided to sell her.
“As [Little Missy] became too expensive… [the family keeping her] was about to re-sell her to Chinese businessmen who had shown interest,” Laos Wildlife Rescue Center (LWRC) wrote on their Facebook page. Captivity, however, wasn’t the worst fate that a captured bear like Little Missy might see.
“It is well-known even for local people that bears are valuable on the black market for medicinal use or consumption,” LWRC director Michelle Walhout-Tanneau told The Dodo. In fact, sun bears are farmed in Laos for their bile, which is used in traditional Chinese medicine.
Thankfully, Little Missy missed learning if that was what the businessmen had in mind for her. That’s because a big-hearted group of bikers were touring Laos’ Sainyabuli province when they met the family keeping Little Missy.
“The bikers had heard of LWRC before,” Walhout-Tanneau said. “[They] convinced the family to hand the bear over to them so they could bring it to a safe sanctuary at LWRC, rather than selling it to the Chinese businessman with whom she would likely suffer a horrible [fate].”
Fortunately, the biker group’s diplomacy earned Little Missy her freedom, and the sun bear was placed in the care of her new entourage. The motorcycling heroes even took her to an LWRC center personally, with an escort some 20 bikers.
It was a good decision on behalf of the bikers. Indeed, LWRC was created as a response to the huge illegal wildlife trade happening within Laos’ borders. Assisted by grants from the U.S. Embassy, it’s the only official wildlife rescue center in the People’s Democratic Republic, which makes it the only hope for thousands of endangered animals.
Certainly, it has volunteer housing and on-site facilities for taking care of rescued animals, including a quarantine area and infirmary. Unfortunately, though, there are so many animals in Laos in need of a new home and only so much space in the sanctuary.
“Our current bear fields are already filled with 16 adult Asiatic black bears who are rescued from the illegal wildlife and pet trades,” LWRC wrote on their Facebook page. “As our only sun bear this leaves Little Missy in the position of not having her own enclosure.”
“We take her on daily walking adventures while we are working on her strength and fitness, but of course we want her outdoors as soon as possible!” it continued. Little Missy, then, is finally in the hands of people who have the knowledge and experience to care for her and is expected to do well.
But although she is being kept as wild as possible, Miss Vientiane’s tale is a little bittersweet. “We want her to be able to go wild on climbing structures, relax in a pool and provide her with a suitable environment to grow into a big strong female,” LWRC explained.
However, due to many complications, it’s doubtful that Missy will ever be released back into the wild. The legal issues alone, coupled with the risk of deforestation of her natural habitat, make the forests of Laos too dangerous for her. Indeed, she would likely end up back in captivity (or worse) if she was caught by poachers again.
Walhout-Tanneau explained the situation further to The Dodo. He said, “Although we try to provide all our rescues with rehabilitation and enclosures as close to nature as possible, for us, a rescue like this always goes combined with a sense of deep grief.”
He continued, “Not only has the mother of this bear likely been killed in front of her eyes, she will also most likely never be truly wild again.” If there’s any place where Missy is free to be as wild as possible, though, her motorcycling angels delivered her to it when they took her to LWRC.
In fact, the sanctuary is presently raising funds to get Little Missy her own enclosure. They wrote, “We are currently fundraising to fast-track the possibilities to provide our little girl with what she needs to be as much of a bear as she can be.” You can find more details on its Facebook page.
But even though Walhout-Tanneau expressed some sadness for Little Missy’s beginnings, the sun bear’s story has brought its own ray of hope for abolishing Laos’s wildlife trade problem. Certainly, the motorcycle club has shown a sense of community that touched the director’s heart.
“It is not often that local people rally together to come to the aid of wildlife in Lao PDR,” she reported to The Dodo. “But this foresees a promising future in our opinion.” Despite her rocky beginnings in life, then, it looks like Little Missy will be walking on sunshine in the future.