Rescue Center Management and Outreach Work at the Animal’s Asia Foundation’s China Bear Rescue Centre During the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake
American Association of Zoo Veterinarians Conference 2009
Heather Bacon, BSc, BVSc, MRCVS
Animals Asia Foundation, Sichuan Longqiao Black Bear Rescue Centre, Longqiao, Xin Du District, Chengdu, China


On May 12th, 2008, an earthquake measuring 8.0 on the Richter scale hit the southwestern Chinese province of Sichuan. The earthquake killed at least 69,000 people with many more missing. Hundreds of companion animal and livestock species were affected by the quake, and whilst relief efforts were initially focused on humanitarian support, a secondary wave of animal-focused relief efforts was also initiated.

The Animals Asia Foundation’s China Bear rescue centre, situated approximately 30 miles from Wenshuan, the epicenter of the earthquake suffered significant damage to buildings although fortunately no damage to animals or people. During the earthquake and in the following months, the importance of our pre-existing response plans became evident. Prior planning allowed us not only to ensure the safety of our staff and animals on site, but also enabled us to offer outreach services to others affected by the earthquake.


Contingency planning for natural disasters or other emergencies should form an integral part of any rescue centre management. Areas to consider are fire, flood, wild animal escape, disease outbreak and geophysical disasters. Additionally contingency planning for potential natural disasters is a necessary part of the development of a centre, as mitigation is often the most cost-effective stage of disaster planning.5 This can be challenging, particularly in developing countries where issues such as construction safety standards may be difficult to address. Our thorough approach to construction meant that, whilst many older buildings collapsed around us, our hospital and bear areas, home to approximately 180 bears, remained intact and safe.


Staff training is of paramount importance to reduce panic that may arise during an emergency situation. Immediately following the initial earthquake, steps were taken to secure the site, checks on water, electric and gas supplies were made, buildings were inspected and secured to prevent entry where necessary, and bears were accounted for and managed to ensure both animal and human safety was maintained.3 Bear enclosures were checked to ensure fence lines, enclosure furniture and trees were still stable, thus safeguarding the local populace against the possibility of a bear escape. If a bear escape had occurred, our pre-existing bear escape procedure would have been implemented. As a charitable facility relying entirely on public support and positive government relations to continue our work, the escape of large carnivores into the local area could have had disastrous consequences for our work. Fortunately, the contingency plans that we had developed with regard to bear management, prevented any problems.

Safety remained paramount; alternative, makeshift staff accommodation was provided by converting more secure hospitalization and storage areas and foreign staff remained in constant embassy contact, whilst Chinese staff kept us regularly updated with local information. Our pre-existing flood preparation protocols were implemented as soon as we were advised of a possible dam breach upstream with the potential to devastate the local area (the rescue centre is sited on the banks of the River Pi, downstream from the Zi Ping Pu dam and Dujiangyan irrigation centre). Life jackets, first aid kits, food and water and other useful items were placed at strategic points,2,3 essential staff was briefed on flood procedure and other staff was evacuated from the centre. All staff remaining on site were briefed thoroughly on the prospective dangers and required to sign waivers acknowledging the risks to them.


Our ability to mitigate the damage to our own centre and the work spent on staff preparation meant that we were able to offer supplies and services to others affected by the earthquake. Our initial response focused on the enormous humanitarian relief effort; delivering water and medical supplies to local towns devastated by the earthquake and ensuring that our staff and their families were secure. We also allied with the Red Cross to deliver food and water supplies to local villages that had been cut off by landslides. During this period, aftershocks, floods and landslides were regularly reported throughout the local area and so we maintained regular communication with the local authorities to ensure the safety of all staff participating in the outreach effort.

As a bear rehabilitation facility with an excellent medical centre, we liaised with the local government by offering advice on securing local bear farms and basic bear husbandry requirements, but sadly due to the political nature of the bear farming issues, our direct assistance was not accepted, despite documented bear escapes from farms in the post-earthquake period. Although frustrated by this, we determined to channel our efforts elsewhere; we quickly initiated programs to protect local people and their animals from disease outbreaks. Dog and cat fostering programs were developed to support owners forced to relinquish their pets and vaccination programs covering both owned and stray dogs started up in local towns to reduce the likelihood of rabies outbreaks triggering further panic and a backlash against animals by local authorities. Once again, the safety of our own staff was weighed against the risks of travel into affected areas and exposure to disease. All staff received pre-exposure rabies vaccination, and post-exposure treatment was given as required.4 We also worked with local dog and cat rescue facilities to provide long-term care for companion animals affected by the earthquake, and this is an ongoing project.


Recovery from a natural disaster is a slow and difficult process. Despite our best efforts at mitigation and preparation, our centre suffered severe damage to a number of older buildings, resulting in an increase in construction costs over the coming years. The local populace has suffered incredible hardship in terms of the ongoing financial losses through lack of tourism, and subsequent floods and landslides, in addition to the obvious damage caused by the original earthquake.


Lessons learned are an important part of the self-auditing process. Since the earthquake our fire, flood and bear escape protocols have been revised, and a brand-new earthquake protocol has been developed. We have more stringent guidance for staff on disaster risks in the local area, including the signing of waivers for all new staff, and recommendations on emergency evacuation and embassy contact prior to arrival in China. Additionally, whilst assisting with humanitarian relief efforts was rewarding, we had to balance this against the potential risks to our staff when visiting disaster-hit areas, and this is not something to be taken lightly. Ultimately our expertise lay in the prevention of disease outbreaks and provision of veterinary assistance, which manifested primarily in the companion animal programs that we developed. However, the instigation of such programs, which are time and labor-intensive and require a heavy financial commitment, should not be entered into lightly.

Literature Cited

1.  American Veterinary Medical Association. 2008. Disaster Resource Materials: Earthquakes, Disaster Preparedness and Response. Pp. 59–62.

2.  American Veterinary Medical Association. 2008. Disaster Resource Materials: Floods and Flash Floods, Disaster Preparedness and Response. Pp. 63–66.

3.  Barbiers, R., Baker, W.K. 2008. Disaster Preparedness for Large Carnivores: Bears and Cats, Disaster Preparedness and Response. American Veterinary Medical Association. Pp.209–210.

4.  Heath, S.E., Chomel, B.B. 1998. Risk factors, prevention and prophylaxis of dog bites for disaster response personnel in the United States. Prehospital and Disaster Medicine. 13: 58–62.

5.  Sprayson, T. 2006. Taking the lead: veterinary intervention in disaster relief. In Practice. 28: 48–51.


Speaker Information
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Heather Bacon, BSc, BVSc, MRCVS
Sichuan Longqiao Black Bear Rescue Centre
Animals Asia Foundation
Longqiao, Chengdu, China

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