A charismatic moon bear who became a symbol of the animal-welfare movement in Asia after being rescued by a Hong Kong-based charity from a bear-bile farm has died after beating overwhelming odds to live out his final years in freedom. Oliver the bear won a host of celebrity admirers, including Born Free star Virginia McKenna and Downton Abbey actress Lesley Nicol, after being rescued with a group of other bears from appallingly cramped cages in a bear farm in Shandong . He confounded expectations when he survived emergency roadside surgery during his dramatic rescue in 2010 to live his remaining four years in a bear sanctuary in Chengdu, western China, run by Animals Asia. He seemed to shrug off the infirmities wrought by 30 years of abuse in captivity and came to epitomise the growing animal-rights movement in Asia. He starred in a film called Cages of Shame that helped turn public opinion against bear-bile farming. Moon bears rarely live beyond 30, however, and last week, as his condition worsened, vets made the difficult decision to euthanise him. A stream of employees who helped rescue him and then cared for him at the sanctuary in his last years held his paw to say a tearful goodbye. Animals Asia founder and chief executive Jill Robinson said she was heartbroken at Oliver's death but said he had won the most important battle of his life when he survived his rescue from the Shandong bear farm in 2010. "Oliver was a broken bear when we found him," she recalled. "His body and legs were misshapen by years of being crushed in a cage, and we feared he would not survive the 1,500-mile journey home. On that day, when Oliver's condition began to deteriorate - panting heavily and refusing to eat - our vets decided that only an emergency operation would save his life. "He was an old bear who had suffered more than anyone can imagine, but it just didn't seem right that he could be so close to freedom and not make it." With a police escort, the trucks carrying Oliver and the other bears rescued from the farm went to a local hospital and borrowed a bottle of oxygen needed for anaesthetic. After four hours of roadside surgery watched by a huge crowd, Oliver's diseased gall bladder was removed along with a crude and painful metal coil that had been inserted into his abdomen to fasten the gall bladder to his abdominal wall. Robinson said: "Oliver brought so many people together that day - from Shandong to Chengdu and across the country - and he's continued to do so ever since. As an old bear who refused to give up, his fight inspired ours. "His story has continued to be told across the world and has raised increasing awareness of the horrors of bear bile farming. Our broken bear turned teacher and his stoic, gentle nature will continue to inspire the rescue of so many more."