Mary Hutton – Freeing the bears

In Mary’s words…

Who/what inspires me: My son Simon inspired me to help the bears. I would never have considered taking it further than a petition but he said to me so many times, “Mum, what will happen to those bears if no-one helps them? How will you feel then?”.

Best advice/motto: If the cause is right and the passion is within, just do it. Who knows where it will take you. 

Mary Hutton gazed with horror at the anesthetised bear on a veterinary surgeon’s table in front of her.  She winced at the sight of pus oozing from the infected wound in the bear’s nose. She gasped as she realised the rope around the bear’s head had become embedded in its flesh. Steeling herself, she and the veterinarian beside her used every bit of their strength to cut free the thick metal ring from the bear’s nostril. Shaking her head in pity, she helped remove the jingle-jangle ornaments imprisoning its face.

The pitiful creature before her was among the last of India’s ‘dancing bears’ to be rescued. For years Mary’s charity, the Free the Bears Fund, had striven to end the barbaric practice of bears being dragged along by a rope through their nose and forced to dance for tourists.

For Mary, ending this practice was a time of sheer elation and relief – one of many milestones for this suburban mum who launched Free the Bears from her family home in Western Australia’s capital city of Perth. After witnessing bears’ suffering on television, Mary transformed her humble family home into a bear rescue headquarters, gave up babysitting for negotiating with Asian governments, and formed a charity that today employs 120 in-country staff and cares for around 800 bears in sanctuaries across Asia. Not bad for someone who had never travelled, didn’t own a computer and had only recently heard of a fax.

Mary transformed her humble family home into a bear rescue headquarters…

Mary, a veterinarian Geeta and a sloth bear rescued from India's 'dancing bear' practice.
Mary, a veterinarian Geeta and a sloth bear rescued from India’s ‘dancing bear’ practice.

Horror sparks action

It was 1993 and Mary Hutton was watching the news when images of bears struck the television screen. The bears were cramped into coffin-sized cages in China, a catheter feeding into their gall bladder to milk bile direct from their bodies while they stood there in pain, eyes dull. Some of the bears are captured as cubs, forced into cages and spend their whole lives there, eventually dying agonising deaths from starvation, dehydration, tumours or disease. Some spend years imprisoned in this hellish practice to satisfy demand for the bile’s use as an alleged health tonic.

Horrified at the images marring the TV screen, Mary got up and walked out. She couldn’t stand to watch such cruelty. But her son Simon called her back. “Mum, you’ve got to watch this,” he said. Hesitant, she returned. The image of the bears’ suffering imprinted on her brain. Traumatised, this animal-loving mum couldn’t sleep for weeks.

Finally unable to stand it any longer, Mary contacted her local member of parliament who suggested she collect signatures for a petition calling for an end to this barbaric act. “I thought ‘God who else am I going to get to sign this’,” Mary recalls. “At the time I didn’t think anyone else cared.”

The image of the bears’ suffering imprinted on her brain.

A small step

Pushing aside her fears, Mary whipped up a hand-drawn petition and stood outside the local shopping mall. “The hardest part was getting up out of my chair and going,” she says. “I kept making all these excuses to myself but once I was up I was out the door.” Standing there alone she felt a fool. “I felt such a lemon. I really did,” she says. “But one lady came up and I told her what it was about and asked if she’d like to sign and she said ‘too bloody right I would’ and I thought at least I’ve got one signature.”

Within several years Mary and a growing group of supporters had gathered 300,000 signatures calling for an end to bile farming. While the Chinese government was flooded with calls to end the practice, nothing changed. Mary realised they’d need to do more than get signatures to make a difference.

Saved sun bears

During this time a friend of a friend said they knew of a businessman in Cambodia, John Stephens, who had rescued three sun bears from the restaurant trade and wanted to bring them back to Australia. Could Mary help? Mary had no idea if she could. Her experience as a mum and babysitter for her friend’s kids hadn’t exactly provided the skills for bear rescue. But once she heard of the fate from which these bears had been saved she knew she had to try. “They’d been rescued from the restaurant trade where they chop off their paws for bear paw soup while they’re still alive and then dump their carcasses into boiling hot water,” she says.

So Mary got on the phone. She called Taronga Zoo in Sydney, Wellington Zoo in New Zealand and Perth Zoo in her home city, every zoo she could think of. Nothing. Finally she thought to hell with it – she’d write directly to the Cambodian prime minister asking if he’d be interested in relocating the sun bears to Australia to help raise awareness of the country’s conservation efforts. Five weeks later the second-hand fax machine her daughter Claire had bought her sounded from the kitchen. Somewhat in awe of the fandangled new contraption, Mary rushed to the fax to read the flimsy paper spilling out. The prime minster would be delighted to export them, it said.

But Mary still needed someone to take the bears. Finally Taronga Zoo agreed. However, there were legalities to be thrashed out, quarantine restrictions to overcome, costs to cover. “When I look back I think I was crazy,” Mary says of her efforts.

The three bears finally arrived at Taronga on a fine summer day amid a fury of media attention. Mary saved her every penny and journeyed to Taronga to see the bears for the first time. Such was the international media attention at saving the bears from the cooking pots that funds began rolling in to Free the Bears which, by this time, was a registered charity. Soon Mary had $35,000. Her lounge room was overflowing with papers to record the donations, her time filled with hand writing receipts. But what to do with the cash?

 “[The bears had been rescued from the restaurant trade where they chop off their paws for bear paw soup while they’re still alive and then dump their carcasses into boiling hot water.”

First sanctuary

The man in Cambodia who’d initially saved the three sun bears, John Stephen, had an idea. Why not build a sanctuary for other rescued sun bears? With little idea how to do this in a developing country where she knew no-one, Mary simply picked up the phone. “I just said ‘where are we going to build a sanctuary, how are we going to build a sanctuary?’.” It turned out John knew a chap who had experience building enclosures for gibbons – but he said he could be anywhere and to ring Perth Zoo to see if they’d heard of him.

So Mary picked up the phone again. It just so happened the zoo staff had heard of the fellow – Dave Ware who ran an animal management service – and he happened to be in Perth. Mary made another phone call. “Can you go to Cambodia and build a sanctuary for sun bears?” she asked. “Go where and do what?” came his response. But it wasn’t long before the seven-hectare Cambodian Bear Sanctuary at the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre was opened. Later, the centre came to boast a world-class veterinary hospital and an awareness and education centre that has educated hundreds of thousands of Cambodians about the threats facing their dwindling bear population.

Mary (right) at the opening of the Free the Bears sanctuary in Cambodia.
Mary (right) at the opening of the Free the Bears sanctuary in Cambodia.

Thailand sanctuary

It wasn’t long before Mary received another phone call. There was a bear in Thailand that had been thrown outside a zoo with its leg missing. Could she help? As was the case in Cambodia, the bear was just one of dozens that needed help, either rescued from the restaurant trade or confiscated from poachers. Another sanctuary was in order. Apparently the Thai military owned some land outside Lop Buri Zoo that would be perfect for such a sanctuary.

In a style for which Mary was becoming increasingly renowned, she simply picked up the phone and got to work. After much negotiation with the Thai military, another sanctuary was ready for opening. Mary had transformed from someone who babysat her friend’s children to a powerhouse negotiating with the military and government officials from her lounge room-cum-bear-rescue headquarters. She was invited to attend the sanctuary opening. “I was so excited,” she says. “Other than the trip to Taronga (Zoo), I had never been anywhere but the tip and the shops.”

With her son Simon by her side, and hundreds of onlookers, Mary watched the sanctuary’s first bears arrive. The duo had been kept in an old cage, with no sunlight, no fresh air, no way to move. The cage was lowered into the new sanctuary and the door opened. One of the bears stepped out, raised her face to the sun, breathed the fresh air in deep, rolled on her back and, as if in heaven, dozed off into a blissful slumber.

“I said to Simon ‘my gosh if we don’t do anything else but what we’ve done for that bear, that’s enough for me’,” Mary says of the moment. “It was the first time I really saw what we were doing for these bears.”

“It was the first time I really saw what we were doing for these bears.”

Bear celebrities

But there was no time to revel in the glory. John called from Cambodia again. There were another three sun bears he had saved from the restaurant trade. Would Perth Zoo like them? Aware of the publicity Taronga had enjoyed for its new sun bears, Perth Zoo was quick to take up the offer. The three bears arrived amid media attention worthy of a Hollywood celebrity in 1998. Awareness of the bears’ plight skyrocketed and again funds poured in. Mary was in huge demand as a speaker. She was on a whirlwind of giving talks, running fundraising cake stalls and film nights, managing funds and, still lacking a computer, issuing hand-written receipts.

Around this time she also started looking after her granddaughter while her daughter went back to work fulltime. She’d care for her granddaughter all day and spend her nights attending to Free the Bears. But one day when a friend came to visit and asked how Mary was, she burst into tears. Although she had a team of volunteer friends around her, it was all too much. Wiping away her tears, Mary, her friend and Mary’s bus-driver husband Ron, came up with a solution. Employ some help. Free the Bears’ first paid staff member was employed to work in a spare room which was turned into an office in 2002. Today three paid staff in Perth manage Free the Bears’ merchandising, membership, and fundraising.

Laos bear rescue

Another phone call sounded. This time from Laos, where there was a dilapidated sanctuary in sad need of repair. So Mary asked Dave Ware, who’d built their first enclosure, to visit. He found three Asiatic black bears in dismal cages. Mary had to act. From her family home, now adorned in photos of rescued bears and cute cats, she made contact with the Lao government who agreed to sign a memorandum of understanding with Free The Bears. The fund immediately set to work designing and building new enclosures and the Tat Kuang Si Bear Rescue Centre was opened soon after. The sanctuary is now home to 35 Asiatic black bears. Set amid rainforest, by a thundering waterfall and tranquil pools, the sanctuary has become so popular with visitors that it is nearly self-sustaining.

Mary Hutton 1

Dancing bears saved

Mary felt as though she’d barely had time to breathe out when the phone sounded once more. This time the call was about India’s dancing bear trade. “It’s what?” came Mary’s response. It wasn’t long before Mary learnt of the practice, which had begun hundreds of years before when nomadic gypsy tribesmen called Kalandars would force sloth bears to perform for crowds gathered outside Mughal palaces. They would seize bear cubs after slaughtering their mothers, burn a hole through the top of their nose and thread rope through the hole and out of a nostril.

They then trained the cubs to ‘dance’ by walking them over hot coals or beating their legs while pulling up on the rope. The cubs learned to associate the pulling of the rope with searing pain on their feet, and so would stand on their hind feet, shuffling from one to another as soon as they heard music.

While the practice had been officially outlawed in the 1970s, when Mary heard of it there were still about 800 dancing bears plying Indian streets. Mary agreed to work with India’s Wildlife SOS and the UK-based International Animal Rescue to end the practice and create a sanctuary for the freed bears.

While horrified at the bears’ treatment, Mary knew they provided a livelihood to their owners. She knew she too would resort to whatever it took to feed her kids. So, together with Wildlife SOS, Free the Bears started the Kalander Rehabilitation Program under which Free the Bears would provide $2000 for each bear to act as ‘seed’ money for bear owners to start a new business after handing over their bears.

But where to find $2000 for each and every bear on the streets? Free the Bears offered supporters the chance to name a bear for a $2000 donation, which would save a dancing bear. The money started coming in. It wasn’t long before they’d found 25 Kalander people willing to hand over their bears. While nervous about changing their livelihood, many of these people were relieved that they no longer had to resort to such a practice to earn a living. They relished the chance for a new future.

The first 25 bears come into the Agra Bear Rescue Facility on Christmas Day in 2002. By 2009, the last of the 800 bears was off the street. The chains had been removed from infected faces, health problems treated, and they were homed in four different sanctuaries managed by Wildlife SOS and part funded by Free the Bears.

For Mary, watching the last of the bears shuffle down the road to rescue was a profound moment. “I just thought ‘oh my gosh, we’ve done this.  It was a feeling of elation’,” she says. “Over $1,000,000 was raised by Free the Bears in seven years, which saved all the bears from the roads of India. Today the practice of ‘dancing bears’ is no more, a 300-year old tradition was broken.”

“Today the practice of ‘dancing bears’ is no more, a 300-year old tradition was broken.”

Get involved

Today Free the Bears also dedicates much of its funding towards trying to save bears in their ever-shrinking natural environment. It funds anti-poacher patrols, wildlife monitoring projects, awareness raising campaigns and conservation projects, while continuing to run the sanctuaries, including a new one in Vietnam. It also continues to facilitate rescued bears’ admission to quality zoos. The charity employs some 120 in-country staff and tends to about 800 bears.

It raises money through the sales of merchandise, donations and memberships. Find out how you can help at


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