Living My Dream as a Wildlife Veterinarian in China

By: Mandala Hunter-Ishikawa

Can I just start by saying that it’s possible to live your dream?  And that dream may not be exactly what you had envisioned, but if you keep moving towards those dreams and goals, it’s possible.

I am one of those people that have wanted to be a veterinarian since I was 12 years old.  I knew I wanted to attend Colorado State University since I was 15, and once I got there, I stayed for nine years! Yes, I loved it that much.  I did finally achieve my goal of becoming a veterinarian and graduated from the CSU DVM class of 2006.  As most of you know, life doesn’t stop when you pursue your degree(s).  It keeps going.  It flourishes as you meet people, experience new places and become involved in your community.

The idea of being a wildlife veterinarian came to me when I studied abroad in Botswana during my undergraduate years.  I went with the School for International Training (SIT), and spent a semester on the Wildlife Ecology and Conservation course.  It was amazing—being in southern Africa, learning the language, culture, meeting people and doing a project with elephant habitats in the Okavango Delta.  I loved every minute of it: the heat, the animals, camping in the “bush” and listening to the lions roar and the hyenas laugh; feeling the energy of the land emanating from the ground to the trees to the animals.  Dare I say it was life-changing? Yes, yes it was.  Because that is what set me on the path to where I am today.Mandala Hunter-Ishikawa2

Today, I am still in awe that I work for Animals Asia Foundation (AAF), an international non-profit animal welfare organization based in Hong Kong.  One of the main objectives is to end the cruel and barbaric practice of bear bile farming in China and Vietnam.  As it stands now, farming bears for bile is legal in China, and there are an estimated 10,000 bears in captivity on these farms.  The bear bile is used in Traditional Chinese Medicine as a cure for liver problems, eye problems and is thought to treat the “cold” energy.  AAF is campaigning against bile farming and educating people that there are many herbal and synthetic alternatives to bear bile, and that no one has died for the lack of bile.

I am so lucky to be one of the Resident Veterinarians at the Black Bear Rescue Center in Chengdu, China.  Our rescue center currently houses 135 Asiatic black bears, or moon bears, that have been rescued from bile farms in China.  The bears here are the ambassadors for the bears still languishing on farms: they are the face of the campaign and prove to people—Chinese and foreigners—that bears deserve better than to have people treat them this way.  The bears have a variety of medical issues, ranging from chronic arthritis to dental disease to mental disorders from boredom and abuse from the years on bile farms.  As a veterinarian, we perform surgeries and monitor medications on the bears and make the lives of these animals the best that we can.  We work closely with a dedicated bear behavior staff to ensure that every part of the bear is being taken care of: the physical and the mental side.  It’s truly an amazing place to work.  I am surrounded by people to care about animals, who believe that we can make a change, and are doing something about it.

You can find more information about Animals Asia Foundation at:

One thing I do want to say is that the path from realizing I wanted to work internationally to finally coming here was not a straight one.  While in vet school, I realized that I didn’t have the practical experience and knowledge in domestic veterinary medicine to be able to extrapolate to wildlife.  People can get experience in a variety of ways, but I decided to work in a rural mixed animal practice to gain that valuable experience.  Living in northern Idaho in a small mining and logging community was the furthest thing from working internationally, but the challenge of practicing medicine and dealing with emergencies and making connections with the people and their pets was priceless.  I will never forget the seven years I spent in that community, making lifelong friends and gaining the most valuable work experience that got me to where I am today.Mandala Hunter-Ishikawa3

One question that comes up frequently is, “why work abroad, when there are animals suffering (or people starving, or other problems) right here in the US?”  My answer to those people is one word: passion.  What is your passion? Mine is working internationally, making a difference, working for an organization that does things right and is making a change, and living an adventurous life.  There are people whose passion is to stay in their country to tackle whatever issue they want.  It’s just not for me.  I strongly believe that with passion, in any profession, is what makes progress.  It’s contagious.  It’s invigorating and energizing.

Did I think that living in China and working with moon bears was my passion, way back in my teenage years? No! I could not even fathom that.  But, with the experiences I had at CSU and beyond, I discovered that I do need to be doing exactly what I am doing, right here and right now.  My job is challenging and fulfilling and living in a city of 13 million people with 135 rescued bears, well, that is an indescribable feeling.  If you don’t know what your passion is, then go out and find it—volunteer, get involved, search online, and see what makes your stomach have small butterflies.  That is what you should strive for, as that is the beginning of the passion you need to make a difference in this life.


Mandala Hunter-Ishikawa is a Resident Veterinarian at the Chengdu Bear Rescue Center in China.  She has grown up in Japan, Michigan and Hawaii before attending Colorado State University to pursue her Bachelors, Masters and a DVM.  During her time at CSU, she was involved in the Fort Collins International Center, the International Leadership Retreat, as well as being the student representative for International Veterinary Students Association, among others.  She strongly feels that travel and adventure are the core to understanding people of different cultures and are crucial in the process of making a difference in this world. Vet1


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