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A mild mannered librarian is a perfect superhero alter ego according to comics and action movies, but Ardnamurchan librarian Lynn Waddell does not don a cape or fly when getting involved in her unexpected acts of heroism.
Because when she is not issuing books to borrowers and putting them back on shelves in the Dewey decimal order, Lynn spends her spare time rescuing bears.
I caught up with Lynn at her home, where bear-related pictures and paw prints on the walls, and a shelf full of bear books – all in the correct order, of course – show her passion and love for these creatures, which sadly often suffer dreadful treatment at the hands of humans, to learn more about how she has spent nearly a decade saving bears.
‘It all began back in 2010,’ Lynn told me. ‘I was waiting for an operation and I was really nervous and not sleeping well. So I often found myself up in the middle of the night channel hopping on the TV to find something to distract me.
‘I stumbled across a documentary about bear bile farming on the wildlife channel and after about 20 minutes I went to wake my husband up so he could watch too.’
The show was about the practise of draining the bile ducts of bears, which are kept in dreadful conditions for use in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM).
Lynn continued: ‘I’d never heard about it before but by the end of the programme I was already working out how to get involved in helping.’
She became a fundraising volunteer with Animals Asia, a charity which has been working to raise awareness of bear bile farming for TCM use, as well as cat and dog farming for food, for 25 years.
Then out of the blue she was contacted by someone who was concerned about a pair of bear cubs they had seen in Albania, chained up outside a restaurant to entice passers by to stop to look at the bears and take photographs.
The restaurant owner had explained that these cubs were
getting too big so he planned to kill them and get some younger cubs.
Despite finding a space for the bears in a wildlife refuge in Canada, Lynn was unable to find a way of transporting them there, as she explained: ‘The logistics of a bear rescue are immense. There are hurdles every step of the way beyond simply getting them out of the hands of the person who has taken them from the wild.
‘When I realised that flying these bears to Canada was not going to be an option, we found an alternative new home for them in a sanctuary in Romania.
‘We managed to confiscate them, using contacts within the Environment Ministry in Albania, then we organised to transport them by road to Romania.
‘The bears travelled in crates, accompanied by a vet. I was getting updates every step of the way and finally at 5.30am I got the call to say they had arrived safely. We opened the Champagne then and there!’
Since that first rescue, Lynn has been involved in many more, telling me stories of Sonia, the dancing bear in Albania; hunting training camps and oligarchs private zoos in Russia; abandoned travelling circus bear cubs in Poland, and displaced bears losing their habitat due to illegal logging practises.
But not all have the happy ending of those first cubs Marco and Maria. Lynn added: ‘It can be very harrowing at times, some of the bears have been so badly mistreated that they have to be put down, but at least their suffering has ended. A rescue is such a rollercoaster of emotions.’
There are thought to still be more than 1,000 bears in Europe alone being kept in cages, in unsuitable conditions and used as tourist attractions.
‘There are simply not enough refuge spaces to take them all, so often I am involved in just making life better for the bears where they are.
‘That can mean assisting with funding to build bigger enclosures or educating people to provide bears with the right food and enrichment.’
For the bears that do make it to a sanctuary, life is very different. Access to pools, trees, proximity to other bears and no more human contact means they regain some of their wild natural behaviours in large forest enclosures.
While the rescue operations and help for bears is coordinated from Lynn’s home in Acharacle, she is quick to explain that she is never working alone, telling me: ‘It takes a village to save a bear.
‘A whole army of people get involved, from bringing food and water to the bears, donating and raising awareness, and reporting bears being kept.’
Lynn has already taken four trips out to Romania to the sanctuary to visit bears she has rescued, including those first cubs Marco and Maria, and says those encounters, along with meeting other people who work with bears, have been some of the highlights of her life.
‘Who would have thought that that middle of the night TV show would have changed my life like this?’ she said.
‘Along with my library work and general work with bear charities, I am always waiting for the next call about a bear who needs my help.’
For more information about bear bile farming, visit www.animalsasia.org/
Lynn works with Hauser Bears: www.hauserbears.com, and Bears in Mind: www.bearsinmind.org