Despite their saccharine names, Sugar and Spice weren't exactly living the sweet life.
In fact, the moon bear cubs, both less than a year old, had spent their short lives toiling at a street-side animal exhibit in downtown Hanoi, Vietnam.
Their routine — stand up, smile for the crowd, sit down — might have been the standard fare of animal shows. Except for the part where they were forced to ride scooters in circles, frequently crashing them and endangering their lives.
And that would have twice the shame for a bear that's so endangered, there are no accurate estimates of how many remain.
Wildlife aid group Animals Asia estimates hundreds of moon bears are kept in rescue centers and zoos throughout Vietnam. While the hearts of their keepers may be in the right places, the facilities are woefully underfunded, resulting in an equally woeful situation for these bears.
Since the country's bear bile industry — a once widespread practice of harvesting bile from live bears — ended in 2017, authorities have cracked down on the operations that persist. Their inmates — if they survive — increasingly turn up themselves at wildlife centers and animal "attractions."
In a way, Sugar and Spice were relatively lucky. They ended up in a zoo. From parts — and parents — unknown.
Their natural lumbering sweetness likely made them a big draw. For the exhibit operators, they turned out to be too good a draw. Catching wind of the operation, members of Animals Asia reached out to local police, who quickly intervened.
"We're very grateful to the authorities for taking swift action in this case and sending a clear message to circuses around the country that they are not above the nation's wildlife laws," Tuan Bendixsen, director for Animals Asia Vietnam, notes in a press release.
And that's when the situation got a whole lot sweeter for Sugar and Spice.
The cubs were quickly moved to a sanctuary in a neighboring province run by the organization. Mercifully, they were in reasonably good health. Spice had a scar on her wrist, likely from her capture in the wild. And Sugar had some damage to her teeth.
The real damage — to their ability to live independent lives — was already done. The bears will never be able to fend for themselves in the wild. But with a return to the forest out of the question, Sugar and Spice will at least get to live their years in a place where everything is admittedly … nice.
At the sanctuary they will have access to large, semi-natural outdoor enclosures filled with trees, grass, climbing frames, swimming pools and rock piles — all to keep them stimulated and encourage natural behaviors.
The Vietnam Bear Rescue Centre, a world-renowned oasis for animals that can no longer live in the wild, is a world away from a street-side zoo. Sugar and Spice will spend the rest of their natural lives lumbering along its nearly 30 acres of trees, pools and delightfully climbable furniture. (Moon bears can live as long as 30 years.)
It isn't exactly where a couple of moon bears belong. But in a world that's rapidly losing these majestic creatures, it may be just the traction they need.
Besides, the story of two rescued bears sends a message to those who treat them as the sum of their parts — or the sum at the admissions gate.
"This rescue will be a deterrent to those who would commit wildlife crime, a wake-up call for the public who may consider attending an animal circus, and hopefully a catalyst for the government to take a closer look at other facilities around the country using protected and endangered species in their shows," Bendixsen notes.