Rescuing Moon bears from China’s infamous bile farms was always going to be a harrowing experience. Whichever way you look at it the practice of bile farming is brutal and inhumane. But Animal’s Asia senior veterinarian Heather Bacon is hopeful for the future of the bears – and wouldn’t trade her position for the world.
The Animals Asia Foundation is a Hong Kong-based animal welfare charity founded by Jill Robinson in 1998. While it runs a broad range of animal welfare programs, the most prominent is the rescue and rehabilitation of Asiatic black bears (Ursus selenarctos) which are farmed for their bile. Asiatic black bears, also known as Moon bears, are listed under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in Appendix 1, the most critical category of endangerment. There may be as few as 16,000 in the wild – but it is estimated that up to 7000 are kept in bile farms in China alone.
The bears can live up to 35 years. Many spend 10 to 20 years on bile farms before dying of chronic infection or related complications.
Bear bile is used to treat a swag of ailments in traditional Chinese medicine, although cheap and effective herbal alternatives have been available for years. Despite warnings by doctors and prominent traditional Chinese medicine practitioners against the consumption of inevitably pus contaminated bile from chronically ill bears, a market for bear bile remains.
As head of the veterinary department, Bacon oversees veterinary and bear-keeping staff in both China and Vietnam. She ensures the health and happiness of rescued bears, housed in Animals Asia’s Chengdu sanctuary, carrying out regular routine checks and investigating health problems that arise. Bacon also takes part in organised bear rescues.
One of the unexpected and most rewarding aspects of her job is the high clinical and surgical case load, a rarity in wildlife medicine.
“I came out here on a one year contract,” Bacon said. “Everyone working with the bears is wonderful, we encounter medical and surgical challenges you might come across in referral small animal practice, and I feel like every working day I am learning. We get a lot of support from visiting specialists, so from a professional point of view this is a really satisfying place to work.”
Bacon completed a degree in Conservation Medicine before graduating from Bristol University with her veterinary degree in 2005. She joined Animals Asia after working with a range of domestic zoo and wildlife species in the UK and Africa.
According to Bacon, there are five well known methods of bile extraction used on China’s bear farms. Animals Asia’s veterinary team has encountered bears subjected to each one of them. The first involves implantation of a latex catheter through the abdominal wall into the gall bladder. This allows 50-100ml of bile to be tapped from each bear daily, but it is liable to clogging.
A second method employs a stiffer rubber pipe connect to a collection bag which is held in place in a metal box. The box in turn is held in position under the abdomen by a metal jacket, usually weighing more than 10kg. Bile is collected from the bag every few weeks.
The third method involves surgical implantation of a metal catheter into the gall bladder to facilitate daily milking of bile. This is often achieved by placing the bear in a crush cage so that farmers can collect bile from underneath the bars.
The fourth and so called “humane” method involves creating a permanent fistula through the abdominal wall into the gall bladder. This is known as the free-drip method as bile drips freely from the infected fistula. According to Animals Asia, almost 30 per cent of rescued free-drip bears have abdominal abscesses and most have pus in their bile. This method is actually approved by the Government.
The fifth is a modification of the former method, known as the fake free drip. As the fistula naturally and persistently tries to heal, farmers insert a Perspex catheter which is cut to be flush with the surface of the abdomen so that the catheter – which is illegal under current regulations – is barely visible.
Bacon explained that the surgery itself is often carried out by farmers rather than trained veterinarians.
“There is a high mortality rate and virtually no sterility in these procedures,” she said.
As a result, most rescued bears are extremely compromised and many are euthansed.
Those that survive often have severe illness, although they are very stoic creatures.
“We’ve treated bears with liver tumours weighing in the order of 7kg yet they are still eating,” Bacon said. “I treated another bear with 8 litres of pleural effusion that appeared to be breathing normally and showing no clinical signs.”
All rescued bears require cholecystectomies.
“There are always a lot of adhesions and a lot of fibrosis due to prior surgeries,” she said. “The gall bladders of these bears are very thick.”
Common complications of bile farming include cholecystitis, peritonitis, hepatic neoplasia and hernias.
“They get these because infection just rots the abdominal musculature.”
Superinfections can occur if bile farmers use antibiotics.
“All of these bears are chronically infected and infection makes them produce less bile,” Bacon said. “The problem is that often inappropriate antibiotics or inappropriate doses are used, which can generate antibiotic resistant infections.”
The most common concurrent condition is severe musculoskeletal and degenerative joint disease, exacerbated by prolonged confinement in metal cages.
“Before we perform a cholecystectomy we have to determine whether we can rehabilitate a bear. They are very recoverable – once we get them moving around and feed them a decent diet their quality of life is excellent. But if they have severe spinal disease it may not be possible.”
Given the traumatic lives of these bears it is hardly surprising that many exhibit profound fear aggression.
“[Initially] they will often try to attack you because they think you are approaching them to extract bile,” Bacon said. “There is a lot of effort put into building a rapport with these bears.”
Nonetheless, all of the bears are eventually trained to stand on a weigh plate and can be crate trained.
“The fact that these bears will voluntarily enter a crate says a lot about the way they are cared for in our sanctuaries,” Bacon said.
But the transition is harder for some bears. One bear, rescued as a six-month-old cub following a traumatic separation from her mother, is currently being treated with a new prescription medication that has been trialled in dogs with fear aggression.
Bacon’s job can be emotionally draining. None of the rescued bears are in good physical condition and all have experienced severe prolonged confinement, pain and trauma.
“You have to develop a thick skin and if you think about the numbers of bears on farms it does grind you down. But when I see bears that we have rescued and rehabilitated it is just unimaginably rewarding.”
Bacon is critical of those who blame Chinese culture for the ongoing existence of bile farming.
“Some people say that the Chinese don’t care about animals but that is not the case. We have 150 Chinese staff who are completely dedicated to the animals in their care. There are an awful lot of locals campaigning to stop bile farming.”
Bacon hopes that the team’s research will help improve the welfare of bears worldwide. One widespread belief they have successfully challenged is that removal of diseased canine teeth may prevent captive bears from establishing a hierarchy.
“Often we need to remove damaged canine teeth as they can get an osteomyelitis of the jaw,” she said. “We did a behavioural study last year and found that there was no detrimental effect to removing the canine teeth and in fact there may be a decline in stereotypy suggesting chronic dental infection is a significant source of pain in these animals.”
“We have been given a donation of omega-3 supplements so we’re going to be evaluating pre and post treatment mobility and skin condition to see if that benefits the bears,” she said.
Due to time constraints it has been difficult for the team to publish their rapidly accumulating knowledge about bears – but that is also changing. Bacon has collaborated on a paper on bear bile farming in the forthcoming International Zoo Year book. Further knowledge is expected to be gleaned by histopathological evaluation of post mortem samples from 70 bears.
As well as treating and rescuing bears, Bacon is involved in Animal Asia’s small animal clinic, and associated awareness programs like Dog and Professor Paws. She trains dozens of veterinary nurses and veterinary students who volunteer with Animals Asia.
“We are very supportive of biological sciences and veterinary students who want to come over here and do a research project, and we have a lot of nurses who care for bears pre and post-operatively or assist in local dog outreach programs as well.”
“One of the biggest challenges I find is managing people’s expectations,” Bacon said. “This is not something that will stop happening tomorrow. Ending the trade in bear trading and bear bile farming is a long-term goal. We have to keep at it, not be disheartened, and realised that every time we rescue a bear we’ve made a huge difference to that animal.”
For more information about Animals Asia, visit www.animalsasia.org
Pictures Ali Bullock, Animals Asia
This article originally appeared in The Veterinarian magazine, May 2010 edition.