Actor and activist James Cromwell continues to give animals a voice, this time by helping Asiatic black bears and sun bears leave bile farms for a life of freedom.
Cromwell is working with Animals Asia to raise awareness about the sanctuary the charity is building in Vietnam, which is designed to comfortably hold and care for the last Asiatic black bears and sun bears currently residing at bear bile farms across the country. Animals Asia, in collaboration with the Vietnamese government, already has a sanctuary in Vietnam, which houses nearly 200 rescue bears.
According to Animals Asia's founder, Jill Robinson, in 2017, Vietnam called a press conference with Animals Asia to announce their commitment to ending bear bile farming, a practice where bears — usually Asiatic black bears or sun bears — "are contained in tiny wire cages to immobilize them so that they can have their bile extracted from their gallbladder" for use in traditional medicine.
With the help of the Vietnamese government, Animal Asia has spent years moving bears from bile farms to the nonprofit's existing sanctuary in Vietnam.
"Because the bears are kept in tiny wire cages for their entire life, they have multiple physical and psychological problems. Very often, when we rescue them, the first thing that we're looking at is what we call 'Broken bears,'" Robinson tells PEOPLE.
"Many of them have had abdominal mutilations from where they've had a crude, surgical intervention to extract their bile. Many of them are blind. Many of them are missing limbs from having been caught in the wild in leg hold traps. Many of them have horrible mobility problems. Many of them have heart problems," she adds of the cruelty bears endure at bile farms.
Even when faced with this despair, Animals Asia knows that each bear deserves a second chance, no matter how long recovery takes.
"They are relentless. They are courageous. They're superhumans," Cromwell says of the charity, which he has partnered with several times to save animals.
Founded in 1998, Animals Asia's decades of hard work have brought the organization "to the cusp of ending bear farming once and for all in Vietnam, which is the most thrilling thing ever because of the collaboration of the Vietnam government there," says Robinson.
This new sanctuary will be the final step, as the existing Animals Asia sanctuary in Vietnam is almost full. There are still an estimated 310 bears left at bile farms in the country that need a safe, permanent home.
"Hence our commitment and sense of urgency to start building this second sanctuary in Vietnam so that we can rescue the remaining number of bears there and commit to our promise," Robinson says.
Plans for the new sanctuary will be publically revealed on May 27, with an event in Vietnam that Cromwell will virtually attend. While plans are in motion for Animals Asia's second Vietnamese sanctuary, the charity is still raising the $5.8 million needed for its construction.
Cromwell hopes that animal lovers will help Animals Asia reach its goal "because we have to learn the lesson from these creatures."
Robinson says that the rescue bears she meets in Vietnam continue to amaze her with their strength and forgiveness.
"Once we bring them into our sanctuary, it may take days, it may take weeks, it may take months for that trust to — and you suddenly see a spark, a light that comes into their eyes. Anyone that's rescued a dog will know exactly what I'm talking about. You suddenly see that mindset switch," she says.
"Their personalities start to emerge. That is the most beautiful thing to see. Bears that were horribly traumatized are now turning somersaults on their own in the grass just because they can. They're in playful bear bundles with their friends just because they can. They're foraging in huge expanses of forest in the sanctuary just because they can. They have choices of whatever they want to do, of whatever they want to eat throughout the day as well. It's a privilege to be working with these species to really begin to understand the animal they are," she adds.
To learn more about Animals Asia and how to help with their new sanctuary in Vietnam, visit the charity's website.