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The 22 Asiatic black bears had spent their entire lives locked in small metal cages at a South Korean breeding farm. There, their gallbladders and bile were harvested and marketed as cures for everything from sore throats to cancer — and, more recently, as a coronavirus treatment.

The bears’ feet had never touched grass or dirt, and they were fed dog food instead of the produce, grains and fruit that they needed for proper nutrition.

“They lived in the most horrific conditions you can imagine,” said Pat Craig, founder and executive director of the Wild Animal Sanctuary in southeastern Colorado.

In mid-March, Craig’s nonprofit organization rescued the shaggy bears — nicknamed “moon bears” for the yellow crescent-shaped markings on their chests. It brought them to Colorado, where they are free to frolic, roam and fatten themselves up.

“To see them finally free and playing in grass for the first time was really rewarding,” said Craig, 62. He has taken in unwanted and abused bears, lions, tigers and wolves at the sanctuary since 1980, and he added a 9,700-acre refuge four years ago.

“You can tell the bears are happy now,” he said. “They’re able to explore 243 forested [fenced-in] acres, play in the water and act like normal bears.”

Through a collaboration with the Korean Animal Welfare Association in Seoul, he said, his nonprofit used about $200,000 in public and private donations to charter a jet this spring and rescue the 22 moon bears.

“We had planned to do it sooner, then the pandemic hit and the country was shut off,” he said. “We were anxious to get them out of there.”

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Craig has identified many more in need of rescue. The bears weigh 150 to 200 pounds and are about half the size of moon bears in the wild because of years of malnutrition.

“There are upward of 200 captive black bears still in South Korea, and I’d love to save every one of them,” he said.

South Korea announced in January that by 2026 it would finally put an end to bear bile farming and bile extraction — a practice in many Asian countries that has drawn worldwide outrage and scrutiny, Craig said.

“The bears are put in coffin-like cages so they can’t move, then a stent is put in through their gall bladders to collect their bile,” he said.

“These bears can’t roll, they can’t move, they can’t shift, and they’re barely fed enough to keep them alive,” Craig said. “They have no stimulation, and they’re never able to experience nature. It’s every bit as appalling and torturous as it sounds.”

Bears often develop infections from the extractions and die, he said, noting that their teeth also can become infected. Long-term-health problems like arthritis are common, because of their cramped enclosures.

Although bile farming is on its way out in South Korea, several hundred bears are still being held in intolerable conditions, he added.

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“Now that the bile cages are gone, they’ve been moved to steel rebar cages that are suspended from the ground so their urine and feces will fall downward,” he said. “Their feet don’t even touch the ground.”

Members of the Korean Animal Welfare Association are paying farmers to feed the bears and keep them alive until they can be flown out of the country by wildlife rescue groups, Craig said, adding that he was contacted by the group two years ago to help.

“We’d love to get them all out, but it takes money and time,” he said. “We could only fit 22 cages on the flight we chartered.”

South Korean volunteers loaded the caged bears onto the plane, then Craig and several employees met the flight in Los Angeles. They transferred the bears onto trucks and drove nonstop to the refuge, located about 30 miles from Springfield, Colo.

At the refuge, the bears were kept in temporary enclosures with private dens for about six weeks to help them get used to new sounds and smells and allow them to become familiar with their keepers, Craig said. Then in April, they were released in stages into their rugged, forested habitat.

A team of veterinarians is observing them to ensure that their adjustment to nature goes smoothly, he said.

The refuge’s head veterinarian, Joyce Thompson, said the bears came to the sanctuary with many ailments, including long-term malnutrition.

“I suspect that some of them may have orthopedic issues as they grow older,” she said, adding that the bears range in age from 6 to 12 years.

One of the rescued bears is blind, another has hip arthritis, and a third is missing a front paw and a back paw, she said. Those bears will be transferred to the group’s smaller sanctuary near Denver for special care.

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“For the most part, the bears are all now doing well and are enjoying their new habitat,” Thompson said. “Before, they were climbing cages. Now they’re climbing trees.”

“We’re allowing them to be their natural bear selves as much as possible,” she said. “They’re not on display here — they just get do whatever they want to do. If they want to, they can go swimming. Or they can sleep all day in the shade. It’s up to them.”

Each bear consumes about 10 to 15 pounds of fresh produce, grains and meat daily, Craig said, noting that fresh berries, raw eggs and salmon are a big hit.

“A deli donated some lasagna to us once, and they really enjoyed that,” he said. “We place plenty of food throughout the habitat, so there’s never any reason for them to fight over it.”

Craig started his animal sanctuary with a single jaguar at age 19 and said he takes special joy in watching large carnivores explore natural surroundings, finally free after years of abuse.

“I grew up on a farm and have always loved animals,” he said. “When I found out there were big cats and bears that were overbred by breeders and unwanted by zoos around the world, I decided to make it my life’s work to rescue as many as I could.”

He said he fenced off his family’s farm outside Boulder, Colo., to begin with, then gradually received enough donations to buy a larger space.

Eighty-five employees and 160 volunteers now care for about 700 lions, tigers and bears at two facilities in Colorado and a sanctuary in Boyd, Tex., Craig said, adding that many of the animals spent most of their lives in circuses or locked up in cages.

“We’ve even taken in a few camels, kangaroos and ostriches,” he said. “But mostly, we focus on large carnivores. They’re expensive to feed and dangerous to take care of, and it’s harder to find places that will take them in.”

Now that the sanctuary’s newest residents are rolling around in the dirt and exploring fragrant woods for the first time, Craig said he hopes to rescue more moon bears soon.

“They’re beautiful animals, and they deserve to be free and enjoy life,” he said. “I’d love to help even more of them to enjoy that feeling of wild grass under their feet for the first time.”

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