In this UN Award winning story, Dateline meets Australian grandmother Mary Hutton and follows her tireless work to stop the mistreatment of bears in Asia.
Tuesday, October 29, 2013 - 21:30

When Perth grandmother Mary Hutton saw a TV report on the mistreatment of bears in Asia, she simply couldn't stand aside and let it continue.

It was then that the idea of Free The Bears was born, and Mary has been working tirelessly to save the animals ever since.

Now, 20 years on from the moment that changed her life, Dateline's David Brill joins Mary in Cambodia to see what she's achieved.

The stories of how the bears come into her care are depressing; bile farming, deforestation, trafficking or abuse.

But her tight-knit team nurses them back to health and does its bit to educate the next generation about animal rights.

This story later won a UN Association of Australia Media Award, in the special category of Promotion of Positive Images of the Older Person.

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The old saying "From little things big things grow" certainly applies to our next story. It's about the incredible dedication of a Perth grandmother to the cause of saving endangered bears. Mary Hutton was shocked when she saw a video of the barbaric practice of milking a bear for its bile. From that moment on, she knew she had to do something to save these mistreated creatures. Two decades later the results are nothing short of miraculous. David Brill takes up the story.

REPORTER: David Brill

When it comes to being cute, almost nothing beats a baby bear.

MARY HUTTON, FREE THE BEARS: Face the camera, be a good girl. Can I have a little kiss, can I have a little kiss?

The future of this one and many more depend on this remarkable grandmother and her dedicated team.

REPORTER: Seeing that little bear Mary, puts everything into perspective, what you're doing.

MARY HUTTON: Doesn't it ever? This is what it's all about, this is what we do, why we keep going, this is why we have to raise awareness and keep the money coming in so we can look after this little girl and others that might come in later due to poaching. The wildlife trade, this is what we do.

The day before, Mary flew in from Perth. It's her first visit to Phnom Penh in 3 years.

MARY HUTTON: How are you? Lovely to see you.

MATT HUNT: You, too. Been a few years.

MARY HUTTON: Good. Hi Dave.

REPORTER: Sorry to be filming you when you arrive Mary.

MARY HUTTON: I'd have done my hair had I known.

REPORTER: You look good to me.

Although she hasn't been back for a while, Mary is no stranger to Cambodia.

REPORTER: There will be a few changes to see.

MARY HUTTON: This is all new, different to when I first came. It was just a hut with a rat in it, literally.

We're heading to a bear sanctuary she established, it's about an hour's drive outside the capital. Mary started Free the Bears in 1995 and her work now spans five countries. Nearly 1,000 bears have been saved. Mary is a legend here and the new staff are very keen to meet her.

REPORTER: What's so special about bears, why bears?

MARY HUTTON: Everyone loves a teddy bear. You have Rupert Bear, Yogi Bear, Paddington Bear, every child has a bear and to think they're being abused like they are in the wild, it's criminal.

Thanks to her tireless fundraising, there have been many improvements at the Bear Sanctuary. Emma Blint works on the education campaign. She wants to show Mary a new enclosure.

EMMA BLINT: This is a viewing area that we built for school groups and visitors. It is shaded, so a lot more comfortable.

REPORTER: This is all new, too, Mary.

MARY HUTTON: This is amazing.

EMMA BLINT: Usually the volunteers and the visitors will spend 15-20 minutes just observing the bears. It's a good moment for me to kind of put a little bit of pressure on about why we're doing this.

Matt Hunt is the Chief Executive of Free the Bears.

MATT HUNT, CHIEF EXECUTIVE: The one under the tree starting to move now, you will see with her, again, she's lost part of one front paw and up to the elbow on the other front paw. When she actually arrived, she arrived with her brother. The pair of them had been hog-tied to a pole. We thought at one point that Rose may lose 3 limbs because the ropes had been tied so tightly on her.

Before coming to the sanctuary, many of these animals suffered similar trauma. The gentle bears are killed for meat, or sold illegally to other countries, including China, where their bile is extracted. The sanctuary is a tribute to Mary's years of hard work. Her campaign began in a remarkably modest way, in 1993 with a petition in a Perth shopping centre.

MARY HUTTON: I just stood there for half an hour, like a stuffed mute. I stood there, not quite sure, knowing, I wasn't sure what to do.

But the plight of the bears soon struck a chord.

MARY HUTTON: It was amazing. I had a queue of people waiting up to sign on this and one sheet after the other got filled up and by the time it was 1:00pm, I must have had 500 signatures. I was absolutely elated.

Public awareness is a key part of the campaign to end the cruelty. This morning there's a children's education session.

INSTRUCTOR: The first thing is we show the presentation induction. They're aware of Free the Bears and what we are doing here.

It's built around Mary's story of campaigning and fundraising. The cruel process of extracting bile from the bears horrified her. The bile is highly prized in Asia for its supposed medical qualities.

INSTRUCTOR (Translation): When they see where the gall bladder is they use a needle to extract the bile.

Mary wants to end the painful practice and other forms of cruelty, but knows this will take time.

MARY HUTTON: This is the first step in changing the thought of generations.

REPORTER: Of what?

MARY HUTTON: Children's thinking - the way they will learn how not to go out and hunt bears. They've got so much to learn about their own country and the way the animals are treated.

This is the latest project at the sanctuary, a brand new quarantine facility and there's a surprise coming.

MARY HUTTON: Oh, a little baby. Hello darling. What a beautiful little girl.

20 years after she began campaigning, I'm taken by her sheer joy with this little bundle.

REPORTER: How was she found?

MATT HUNT: She was actually confiscated from a hunter, very likely it would have become, you know, bear paw soup.

MARY HUTTON: A pink little tongue. I think this is the smallest one I've ever held, really. Look at length of the claws already. Aren't they beautiful.

REPORTER: And they cut those claws off and use them for soup.

MARY HUTTON: They chop the whole paw off while the bear is alive and use it for braised paw soup with onions and garlic and it sells to people for $250 a bowl or something like that, yeah.

For some of these bears, life has changed dramatically. This one was kept in a cage by a factory owner, whose large staff fed it constantly.

MATT HUNT: He was 144 kilos, twice the average weight of a male bear when he arrived.

This is the bear just before it was rescued. The Cambodian authorities and a non-government organisation called The Wildlife Alliance, play a big role in the rescues. They are proud of their work. This is how one cub was transported and here is the illegal trader under arrest. Back at the quarantine centre, Mary is understandably proud. This is a state of the art facility using solar energy and recycled water.

MARY HUTTON: Absolutely fantastic, really. It's mind boggling. The thought and planning that's gone into this has been incredible. Do you know, the first quarantine area that I saw? A bit of dirt, under no trees and an animal of some sort was in the cage and that was it. That was a quarantine area. If an animal was okay when it came in, it certainly wasn't when it went out. It was sad.

Word has just come in a bear has been located and Matt Hunt is moving quickly.

MATT HUNT: I do know the bear's been handed over. We will go and pick it up and get it to the sanctuary. It is a cub and the only thing that's been said is that where we're going to, a private business. Please don't film anything that shows or anything like that.

REPORTER: I will hold the camera down but be as best as I can be. Is that the cage is it? Is this the bear you just got?


Nev Brodis has more detail.

NEV BRODIS: This cub was found in farmland which may or may not have previously been forest. She was brought to Phnom Penh by the owner of the farmland. The owners agreed to donate her to us. She's a bit ill at the moment. She has a very extended belly. She's basically had the wrong food. This has led to this very swollen belly.

REPORTER: That's why he brought him in, did he?


This young one is very lucky to survive. Her mother would never abandon her, so she's probably dead.

NEV BRODIS: She has had a pain killer and she needs a bit more medicine to relieve that gash in the stomach.

Now the cub is on its way to a new life. At the sanctuary we sit watching the video that two decades ago started Mary on this long journey. It is where she first learned about the process of bile extractions.

VIDEO: Innocent animals continue to suffer and to die.

I can see that Mary is still deeply affected by the bears' suffering.

REPORTER: What do you think after seeing that, when that was happening all those years ago, and what you and your team here have achieved since then?

MARY HUTTON: We've done a little bit, that's for sure. We haven't been able to address the bile farms in Laos yet, but we're working on that with the government, hoping to change things gradually. It's hard. It's hard, really.

REPORTER: When you say hard, what you mean?

MARY HUTTON: You can't go up to the government and say this is wrong. You can't do that, you have to work with the government and campaign day after day and tread slowly and softly, hoping one day that they will realise that it's wrong. I mean, these are endangered species and what is going to happen when there aren't any left in the wild? That's the problem. What are they going to do then?

This long and very successful campaign by Mary has not been without tragedy. Her son Simon was deeply involved in the work as a project director, but disaster struck here in Phnom Penh in 2005.

MARY HUTTON: My son, he was just hit by a car, he just stepped off the curb, wasn't thinking and he hit his head on the car, on the pavement, rushed to hospital. He never came out of his coma, which was pretty awful. It was pretty terrible. He keeps me going and the bears kept me going. The bears helped me so much through that time, because I had this focus so keep going in my head. I have this focus - "I've got to keep going for Simon and the bears. The bears need help".

That is exactly what's happening now. A bear is being tranquilised with this blow dart. And then it is taken for a health check. Managing the physical and psychological health of these creatures is a complex task. This bear's about to join a different peer group.

MATT HUNT: Bears are solitary animals in the wild, so keeping them in groups is not easy, but over the years we've become skilled at it. We can have large groups together now. He will go into a group with two other males.

While the bear is asleep, Mary's not about to pass up the opportunity for some fundraising.

MARY HUTTON: Yes, we're taking some paw prints - I will take them back to Perth and we can get them framed. You will get hundreds of dollars for these, to raise money for the bears.

At 75, most people would be putting their feet up but not this campaign veteran.

REPORTER: Mary, you and I are not getting any younger - what's the future?

MARY HUTTON: I suppose I shall still be around until I drop off the perch. I don't know when that is going to be but all the time I can raise awareness and give talks at schools and clubs like I do back in Perth, I suppose I will keep going. Probably one day I might say - I'm too stiff to move, too old to keep breathing and that will be that. I can't think that far ahead. I just have to take one day at a time.

ANJALI RAO: Something tells me Mary will be around for a long time yet. There's more on Mary's long-running campaign and an interview with David online. You will also find a link to her Free The Bears website.






Original Music Composed by


Additional footage courtesy of Wildlife Alliance

29th October 2013