Bear necessities: Dr Emily Drayton

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Dr Emily Drayton veterinarian
Photography: Glenn Hunt

As senior vet at the Animals Asia bear rescue centre in China, Dr Emily Drayton overcame mental and emotional anguish while helping these abused animals. By Kerryn Ramsey

For eight years, Dr Emily Drayton lived in China, working with Animals Asia to rehabilitate moon bears rescued from bile farms. As the senior vet at a Chinese bear rescue centre, she managed staff and was responsible for about 200 bears. It was a long process to get the bears to a place where they could be released into an outdoor enclosure.

“While it was nice to finally see them outside and relatively free, it was always tinged with a bit of sadness,” she says. “We tried our best to provide all the things they could need but we couldn’t give them the space or complexities of living in a natural environment. Working at the rescue centre was an emotional roller-coaster.”

Welfare calling

After graduating from the University of Sydney in 2010, Dr Drayton’s first job was at a one-vet general practice on the NSW Central Coast. She spent six months gaining experience working as a vet, then moved to Sugarloaf Animal Hospital in West Wallsend, a 30-minute drive from Newcastle. “It was my ideal job,” says Dr Drayton. “We treated a lot of exotics and wildlife. I had a great mentor, Dr Mark Simpson, and learned a lot while being exposed to different animals. I also felt conflicted because many of the issues were husbandry related for the pet industry. I really wanted to be an advocate for animal welfare and that sparked my interest in wildlife work and rehabilitation.”

Many young vets have a desire to own their own business and Dr Drayton was not immune to the call of practice ownership. While it would be an opportunity to do things her own way, there were drawbacks, too.

“I saw how much work is involved and how it takes you away from the clinical side of things,” she says. “I soon came to the realisation that practice ownership was not for me.”

After three years at Sugarloaf Animal Hospital, Dr Drayton took time off as she was feeling burnt out. Before long, she saw a job advertised for a resident vet at the Animals Asia bear rescue centre in Chengdu in the Sichuan Province of China.

“When I was undertaking a bachelor of science within my vet degree, my research was on the platypus in captivity,” says Dr Drayton. “It was at that time that Jill Robinson, the CEO and founder of Animals Asia, came to the university and gave a lecture. I was fascinated by the work and inspired by the bears and their stories. When I applied for the resident vet position, I’d only graduated four years ago. To my surprise, I passed the interviews and was offered the job.”

Cruel conditions

Dr Drayton’s original contract was for two years but early in the role, she thought she may not even last that long.

While it was nice to finally see [the bears] outside and relatively free, it was always tinged with a bit of sadness. We tried our best to provide all the things they could need but we couldn’t give them the space or complexities of living in a natural environment. Working at the rescue centre was an emotional roller-coaster.

Dr Emily Drayton

“The work, the environment and living in China are all very challenging,” she says. “But I soon discovered a great sense of purpose and the team was just wonderful. I ended up staying for eight years.”

Dr Drayton, who was soon promoted to senior vet, worked and lived at the bear sanctuary. The bears had been rescued from bile farms across China and would live at the sanctuary for the rest of their lives. They have free roaming enclosures and indoor dens. Dr Drayton oversaw the day-to-day care and veterinary health of these abused bears. She also visited bile farms, treating the bears on site, removing them from their cages and transporting them across China back to the sanctuary. 

“Once back at the sanctuary, they usually needed extensive veterinary care,” says Dr Dayton. “Bile collection includes mutilation of the gallbladder and liver. Many bears require cholecystectomies and liver surgery. Common complications are peritonitis, limb trauma, extensive dental disease, and ocular trauma. The bears are not just physically traumatised, they’re extremely mentally and emotionally damaged. It takes a lot of time and effort to get them to a point where they can be outside.”

Bile farming is a legal practice in China with certain standards in place. Bears can’t be removed unless these standards are breached. This means that Dr Drayton was often dealing with bears kept in the worst possible conditions.

“The bears were kept in cages so small they can’t move, making it easy to collect bile,” she says. “They were starved to increase the size of the gallbladder. They were often kept in dark, dank places and never saw sunlight. When they get to the sanctuary, they’re terrified of other bears and open spaces.”

Small victories

There is an emotional and mental price to be witness to such cruelty. To some degree, it was counterbalanced by the other side of the story. Dr Drayton was able to see rescued bears playing in enclosures, enjoying life and building bonds with other bears. 

“There were many happy endings but it still comes with a lot of mental anguish and depression,” she says. “It makes you question humanity. I had to try and understand the other side. The bile farmers were poor and uneducated, often believing that bears felt no pain. If they had the same education and opportunities as me, they wouldn’t do this. But they don’t. I had to be a little empathetic to them as people.”

The good news is that things are slowly changing for the better. Bile farms are illegal in Vietnam and Cambodia and there’s a staged phasing out of these operations. Despite the fact that Chinese bile farms are often run by big pharmaceutical companies, some headway is being made.

“Bear bile does have some therapeutic value but there are synthetic alternatives available,” says Dr Drayton. “The Chinese government has put funding and research into creating synthetic bear bile which is a step in the right direction.”

Wildlife advocate

After eight years rehabilitating bears in China, Dr Drayton returned to Australia in 2022. She worked for seven months in a general vet practice, connecting with people and their pets. But the call of welfare work was still strong. For the past eight months, Dr Drayton has been the lead clinical vet at the RSPCA Wildlife Hospital in the Brisbane suburb of Wacol. They see about 70 patients a day.

“We treat a wide range of wildlife from across South East Queensland,” says Dr Drayton. “We also treat domestic birds and reptiles that are surrendered or seized by the authorities. A lot of trauma is due to cars and window strikes. Burns from hotplates and metal roofs are frequent. Electrocution is a big problem for possums and toxicity exposures to baits are frequent. We also treat many koalas suffering from trauma, disease and chlamydia.”

Fortunately, Dr Drayton has nurtured a mindset and developed the emotional strength needed to deal with this confronting work and the associated high rates of euthanasia. She is happy and fulfilled but still sees big challenges in the future.

“Climate change is a huge issue for the environment and the situation is developing in an alarming way,” says Dr Drayton. “Wildlife is going to need much support and help. People in our industry are on the frontline and it’s a difficult role. I believe there’s hope for the future but even if I was completely pessimistic, I would still keep fighting. I’m incapable of not fighting; I just have to do it.”

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