Beating the bear bile trade

Would you consider leaving behind your home, moving overseas, and dedicating your life to the welfare of suffering animals?

I wondered whether I would do this when I met the founder of Animals Asia, Jill Robinson, at the Minding Animals Conference in New Delhi. Actually, I wondered less about whether I could leave the comforts of home and more about whether I would have the determination required to give over my life to animals in the face of the seemingly insurmountable obstacles and wretched suffering.

Jill has been fighting the bear bile trade in Asia – which is principally in China but also in Vietnam, Laos, and Korea – since the early 1990’s. There are in excess of 10,000 “factory-farmed” bile bears in China and 2,000 in Vietnam. Animals Asia has re-homed 400 bears to its bear rescue centres, located in Chengdu and Tam Dao.

Extracting the bile of hunted bears has occurred for thousands of years in China. The product is highly valued in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) and is much sought after not only in Asia but as far afield as the US and Australia. In addition, the laws surrounding the practice of harvesting bile are either insufficient or not properly enforced. Moon bears are endangered too; there is thought to be only ten or twenty thousand left in the wild, where their habitat is being destroyed and where they are being poached for organs and body parts such as their paws.

Clearly, the scale of the problem is daunting. On top of that is the personal challenge of confronting over and over the treatment of these animals. Most of the bears are Asiatic black bears (Ursus thibetanus), popularly known as moon bears because of the half-crescent, lighter fur emblazoned on their chests. They can live up to 30 years in the wild and 35 in captivity, but those who are bile-milked rarely live this long due to the severity of their treatment and the much higher risk of liver cancer.

And yet, because of their stoic and resilient natures, moon bears can sometimes remain on bile farms for years or decades. Their treatment often defies belief. One method of milking bile involves inserting, without adequate sterility or analgesia, metal catheters through the abdomen and into the gall bladder where they remain in situ for extended periods.

Another method is to create a fistula involving gall bladder and abdominal wall, resulting in an open wound that inevitably becomes chronically infected or abscessed. (Those who imbibe the mixture that drips from the hole risk drinking pus and becoming seriously ill.)

Most of the bears are kept in metal cages so small that they can only just turn around. In some cases, they are unable to move or stand. The bears may be starved and dehydrated.

The reality is thus very different from the image presented by some defenders of the practice, such as one leading TCM practitioner who said that removing bile from bears is: “natural, easy and without pain…After they’re done, the bears can even play happily outside”. (Other TCM leaders correctly point to the feasible alternatives to bear bile and to the lack of any medicinal need for the bile farms. Increasing numbers of ordinary Chinese citizens are also getting more interested in animal welfare issues like this one.)

However, the physical suffering is only part of the story. Moon bears are intelligent animals and those who are caged on these farms typically become psychologically traumatised. Many bears vocalise and moan, rub off the skin on their faces, and destroy their teeth on the metal cages. Others engage in long-term stereotypical behaviour even after they are rescued and rehabilitated. Their treatment usually makes them afraid of and aggressive towards humans.

So, why do people like Jill choose to give their lives to these abject creatures, only a fraction of whom have been saved?

Robinson recounts the moment that first stirred her into a passionate defence of the Asiatic bears. It occurred when, on an early visit to a bile farm, she was surprised by a bear who reached through the cage to touch her on the shoulder with a paw. Later, she got to know the bears in her rescue centres not as numbers but as individuals with distinct personalities.

In fact, moon bears display complex behaviours that have the power to enthral those who view them on video or who visit the centres. For example, even traumatised bears can sometimes regain a capacity for excitement and play that is well worth watching on youtube – some of the behaviour is reminiscent of the play of very young children.

The engaging personalities of the bears is part of the reason that Robinson (with the well-known scientist Marc Bekoff) could write her children’s book, Jasper’s Story. Jasper had been pinned to the wire floor of a crush cage for many years and he had to be cut out of it. Despite being in terrible physical condition as well as being mentally scarred, Jasper one day begins to swat at a piece of straw in the rescue centre. That moment of tentative yet miraculous play, in an animal all but ruined by his oppressive conditions, represents the emergence for the very first time of a distinctive character. Jasper goes on to reveal a sense of mischief existing alongside a desire to break-up fights between other bears in the sanctuary.

No doubt there are many reasons why people like Jill Robinson defy seemingly hopeless odds to assist suffering animals. It is certainly not all doom and gloom, for Animals Asia has had great success in raising awareness of the cause around the world, and recently there has been a groundbreaking agreement with a major bile farmer to phase out his production. But the very personal experiences we can have with animals are surely a part of the moral motivation for activists like Jill Robinson. In the middle of the conference, Jill left suddenly to fly back to China. She had to coordinate the arrival of a newly rescued and inevitably badly damaged moon bear.

SIMON COGHLAN