An Asian black bear (“moon bear”) languishes in a cage in a Vietnamese “bile farm”. Subjecting bears to this inhumane procedure is common throughout Asia, and profitable to those who sell the extract to Chinese traditional medicine practitioners.
Freeing China’s Caged Bile Bears
Animal activists aim to curtail trade in traditional remedy
By Kathleen E. McLaughlin, Chronicle Foreign Service
CHENGDU, CHINA — Jill Robinson’s life was forever changed when she stole away from her tour group on a Chinese bear bile farm and descended a flight of stairs to a dark basement, where she saw the dim outlines of cages.
“I actually didn’t understand what I was seeing at first,” Robinson says. “Then it made me sick to my stomach.”
Dozens of bears, kept alive only for their bile, were trapped in cages so small they couldn’t move, their bellies spiked with crude, dirty, often- infected devices to allow the farmers to “milk” their bile twice a day and sell the fluid secreted by the liver as medicine.
Suddenly, one of the bears reached a paw out of its cage. Unaware that moon bears, an endangered Asian black bear species named for the yellow crescent on its chest, are among the most aggressive of bears, Robinson spontaneously grabbed the animal’s paw and held it. She marvels that she still has her arm.
“In years later, it has shaken me and made me really believe there was a message there,” she says.
Now the soft-spoken Briton, who went on to found Animals Asia Foundation, based in Hong Kong, is pressing the Chinese government to ban bear farming outright before the 2008 Olympics in Beijing and close down the farms where, according to the World Society for the Protection of Animals, 7,000 caged bears are being milked for their bile.
It is not an easy battle to win. Bear bile has been used in Chinese medicine for centuries to treat a variety of ailments, from inflammation and heart disease to impotence, Parkinson’s disease and liver ailments.
Still, Robinson has had some success in her crusade to save the captive bears.
A Moon Bear Rescue center she started in Chengdu, Sichuan province, has grown steadily, particularly since the foundation signed an agreement with local government officials to help shut down the worst of China’s bear farms. So far, she has saved 185 bears.
The animals arrive at the 25-acre refuge, after being purchased from farmers for a price Robinson will not disclose, in crude devices such as “crush cages” with brackets used to force the bear’s body down so it cannot move while its bile is being extracted. Full metal jackets, encasing a bear’s entire torso, prevent it from ripping out the painful tube in its gall bladder, the organ in which bile from the liver is stored.
The rescued bears carry their own peculiar scars. Truncated paws, where farmers have cut off entire toes rather than declawing the bears. Missing and broken teeth from chewing on the metal bars of their cages. Patchy hair from malnutrition. Head wounds from “cage rage” — repeatedly banging their heads on the metal bars of their tiny cells.
Veterinary surgeon Dr. Kati Loeffler tries to save the damaged bears. In one recent surgery, she operated on a bear named Minnie who carried a crude catheter wired into place, buried under two pounds of scar tissue.
“This can never be a humane industry,” Robinson says.
The central government did not respond to requests for comment, but recently Beijing has allowed state-run media to carry a number of high-profile television and newspaper reports exposing cruel practices on the farms, an indication that forces in Beijing are beginning to lean against the practice.
In February, Vietnam signed an agreement with the society to phase out its bile farms, where an estimated 3,000 bears are held, a move that could put pressure on China and Korea to close bear farms on their soil.
Meanwhile, however, the steady stream of bile from farms is creating a burgeoning market for the product, not only in Asia but around the world, experts say.
A 2000 report by the society found bear gall bladders and bear bile medicines for sale in several U.S. cities, including in San Francisco’s Chinatown, even though sale of the product is illegal in California.
The farms now produce an estimated 141,000 ounces of bear bile each year, outstripping even the growing consumer demand. In response, drug companies have started using excess bile in alternative products like shampoo, wine and health teas.
“We’ve reached the state now where we are incredibly frustrated with the inaction,” Robinson says. “We are appealing, just begging the government to do something about this.”
The farms have few outspoken advocates, but among them is Dr. F
an Zhiyong, head the fauna division of China’s office of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, better known as CITES. Last year, Fan called for new rules to allow China to export bear-bile products.
“China has a large market demand for bear bile,” Fan wrote in a widely distributed paper in 2003. “If it were not satisfied with bile powder from bear farms, this demand would attract poachers to kill wild bears, which would really endanger the survival of bears in China, and even of bears in other countries.”
Indeed, China’s bear farms sprang up after China outlawed the killing of native bears — all listed as endangered species — in the 1980s.
However, bear farm opponents argue that synthetic bear bile — ursodeoxycholic acid, or UDCA — is cheaper and just as effective. Professor Liu Cheng Cai, a medical instructor at Chengdu Military Hospital, one of China’s top traditional medicine centers, says herbs and other medications negate the need for the animals’ bile.
At one major pharmacy in Beijing, bear bile powder — golden flecks packaged in small glass vials — sells for nearly $100 for two grams. In a sign that the campaign to substitute herbal remedies for bear bile may be gaining ground, the pharmacist said it works especially well on liver diseases but is not very popular these days because of the availability of cheaper alternatives.
Meanwhile, word of Robinson’s crusade is spreading. Visitors to the organization’s Web site, www.animalsasia.org, are signing up to support the sanctuary with donations ranging from $5 for a pot of honey to $3,500 for a bear den. Superstar Hong Kong actress and singer Karen Mok has signed on as spokeswoman for the foundation, and crocodile hunter Steve Irwin filmed a segment in February on veterinary surgery at the sanctuary.
Although rescued bears cannot be released to the wild, having long since lost their survival skills, they are freer at the sanctuary than they have been in years.
At the center, which costs $80,000 a month to operate, more than 100 roam between indoor stalls and outdoor play areas, hanging in basket beds and climbing on timber toys.
New arrivals await surgery to remove catheters and repair wounds, pacing about in cages substantially larger than the ones they had been confined in, getting used to being able to move around. They work on simple puzzles — such as finding fruit hidden in small logs — to challenge brains and muscles atrophied by years of confinement.
Some of the animals, ranging in size from the stunted 50-pound Franzi to the 7-foot-tall, 300-plus pound male named Emma, even eat fruit from workers’ hands.
“When you think they were consistently enduring all those pain sensations all their lives …” says Robinson, her voice trailing off. “We wouldn’t be so forgiving as a species.”
© 2005 | 08 San Francisco Chronicle
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