Caesar the bear spent the first part of her life in hell.
For years, the brown bear lived at a bile farm in China. Like thousands of other bears, she was packed into a tiny cage, never seeing the sun or having room to run, while an open wound on her side drained bile from her gallbladder for use in traditional Chinese medicine.
But Caesar also wore a torture vest, a cruel metal cylinder that was belted around her abdomen. The contraption kept in place the "crude" latex catheter that siphoned out the bile, as well as a metal box to collect it in.
"[It's] the worst imaginable bile farm torture," Animals Asia, which eventually rescued Caesar, said of the vest.
And the device was as uncomfortable as it looked. "I remember only too well her rescue some four years ago when she bounced violently in her rusting cage on the bear farm in Tianjin and I thought she would crash through," Jill Robinson, founder of Animals Asia, wrote. "Caesar was understandably a very unhappy bear."
Fortunately, Caesar was one of the lucky ones to escape the bile industry. When Animals Asia rescued her in 2004, she was frustrated and miserable, her abdomen wet and hairless from the painful vest. She had never lived a natural life.
But now, after years of recovery at Animal Asia's Chengdu sanctuary, Caesar looks like a different bear. Happy and healed, she's turned into a strong, muscular bear with a "majestic" coat, Animals Asia said.
"Caesar's scars have all but disappeared and today she is an astonishingly beautiful (and formidable) bear," Robinson said, noting that she's "in robustly good health" despite her years in the bile cages. "Weighing in at a humongous 271 kgs [598 lbs], Caesar is all muscle and all woman!"
And her favorite activities couldn't be further from the dark, tiny environment where she spent the first part of her life.
"She has now spent a dozen happy years with Animals Asia in Chengdu, enjoying swims in the sunshine as well as indulging her natural digging instincts — particularly when the weather cools in the autumn," Animals Asia said.
Photos shared by the group show Caesar lounging happily in her sunny pool, splashing about and stopping only to shake the water off her thick fur.
"Seeing a bear shake themselves like this is always a moment full of awe — they're such incredibly beautiful, powerful animals and none more so than Caesar," Nic Field, director of the group's China bear and vet team, said in a statement. "To see her out in the sunshine — a dozen years on from her rescue — it's hard to imagine her existence back then."
While Caesar's transformation is incredible, it's also a reminder of just how much life is still cooped up in Asia's bile farms. There are an estimated 10,000 bears locked up in China alone, according to Animals Asia. Most are moon bears, but some are brown bears like Caesar.
And while the cruel metal vest she wore has since been outlawed, that doesn't mean there aren't bears like her still trapped in the medieval-looking devices.
"These metal jackets are now illegal so less common, but it's likely that there are still some out there," Steve Jackson, head of communications for Animals Asia, told The Dodo.
But while Caesar's rescue might be one small dent in the bile industry, it made a world of difference in the life of one happy brown bear. Even after all these years, she's still making up for the time she spent tucked away in darkness — which means lots of swimming, climbing and running through the grass.
"[She was a] huge presence trapped in such a tiny, confining space," Field said of Caesar's life before her rescue. "We're honored to be able to provide her a better life, and watching her enjoy her surroundings every day is an absolute pleasure."