Support grows to end bear bile farming
- Published: 24 May 2012
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Prominent Chinese personalities, students, academics, members of the public and the media are joining the growing chorus of voices speaking out against bear bile farming – an incredibly cruel practice where bears are kept in tiny metal cages for years on end, their bodies cut open to drain their bile for use as a health remedy. Animals Asia Foundation is at the forefront of rescuing these bears, who have physical and mental scars, and placing them in sanctuaries where they can begin to enjoy life after countless years of confinement and agonising pain. Susannah Waters reports.
24 May 2012
I once witnessed a moon bear walk on grass for what was believed to be her first time. She was recovering at the Animals Asia Moon Bear Rescue Centre in China after countless years on a bear bile farm.
The wide outdoor space La Jana was introduced to initially elicited fear from this enormous individual, who had spent the majority of her life in a tiny metal cage. It was astonishing to observe a huge bear become nervous at the sensation of grass underfoot. Luckily, unease soon turned to curiosity and she began to relish her time in the sun.
During my time as a volunteer at the rescue centre, what I found most striking about La Jana was her gentle attitude toward humans: she radiated peace. Her behaviour indicated that she didn’t harbour any ill will towards the people who now worked around her, despite a history of human indifference to her suffering.
Animals Asia Foundation (AAF) is the organisation at the epicentre of the fight to end bear bile farming. The progress AAF has achieved to date is impressive: it has closed down 43 Chinese farms, and has overseen the conversion of 20 mainland China provinces to bear farm-free status. The organisation has rescued 381 bears from these factories of misery in China and Vietnam.
Life in the shadows
For 19 years, AAF Founder and CEO Jill Robinson has been unwavering in her commitment to abolish bear farming. Robinson, who refers to the practice as “barbaric mutilation of an endangered species”, says that images from her first glimpse into a bear farm in 1993 still haunt her.
“But today, nearly two decades later, I see bears suffering in exactly the same way on these disgusting farms in China and Vietnam”, she tells The Scavenger.
Bear bile’s use in Traditional Chinese Medicine gave rise to facilities which operate with the sole aim of extracting the substance from live bears. Extraction techniques cover a spectrum of brutality. The deplorable free-drip method – comprising a gaping hole cut into a bear’s abdomen to facilitate the flow of bile – is the only legally-sanctioned method in China, but crude catheters inserted into gall bladders or the torturous metal jacket are still often used.
Farmed bears are often confined in cages so small they can barely move.
The suffering of farmed bears is all-encompassing. The bile extraction process is not only agonising, but also leaves bears vulnerable to disease and premature death. Mental trauma and consequent stereotypical behaviours are rife among farmed bears, who are denied any semblance of a normal life.
Official figures suggest that 7,000 bears are presently incarcerated in bear farms across China. However Anne Lloyd-Jones, Australian Director of AAF, suspects the number is higher. “There could be more than 14,000 bears on farms in China, but no one really knows for sure. The figure could actually be closer to 20,000”, she says.
Nevertheless, AAF remains confident that bear farming’s days are numbered. Robinson believes that it will ultimately be reflected upon with “utter shame that our species could have been responsible for such physical and psychological torture of another sentient, intelligent mammal”.
An inspiring journey
A new film Cages of Shame underscores the determination of AAF to eradicate bear bile farming and cease the trade in its associated products.
Martin Guinness’s award-winning film follows a team of AAF staff traversing thousands of kilometres to free 10 bears from years of bondage on a Shandong farm. The trip was fraught with a series of challenges, including frequent traffic gridlock and the ever-present anxiety over the bears’ health.
The goal was to transport the bears safely to AAF’s Moon Bear Rescue Centre in Chengdu, where staff would work to repair their damaged bodies and fragile mental health. Almost 300 bears have passed through the sanctuary’s gates since 2000.
Guinness, who first saw a flyer about the plight of the moon bears six years ago, hopes to increase public awareness of bear farming.
“It touched me so much, I knew I had to try and do something”, Guinness says. “Obviously, being a filmmaker, I thought of making a documentary film to spread the word”.
He joined the AAF to document their trip to liberate the group of bears. “Naturally, my hope was to initially spread the word to let people know”, Guinness says. “Of course, the end intention is to free all the bears being held in cages.”
Lloyd-Jones believes that Cages of Shame is an important film as it not only exposes the “horrors” of bear farming, but also demonstrates the rising tide of support for a ban in China.
“It shows how many wonderful Chinese people went out of their way to help us rescue those 10 bears. While there is a lot of animal cruelty in China – as there is in Australia and elsewhere – there is also a large number of people who deeply care about animals and want bear farming to end as much as we do”, she says.
Guinness reveals the bear rescue had a profound impact on him. “I was also touched by the emotions of the vets and veterinary nurses, who are used to seeing animals in pain. But, in some cases, they were in tears seeing the state of the caged bears.”
The compassion and fortitude displayed by the staff is perhaps one of the most powerful features of the film.
Explosion of support
Bear bile has traditionally been used as an antidote to inflammation and heat-related afflictions in humans, including high temperatures and liver disease.
But its use as a health remedy has been scrutinised by medical practitioners in recent years. Evidence is mounting that this substance, often derived from very ill bears, presents a grave risk to human health.
Bears languishing on farms often succumb to an array of health conditions such as regular infections, multiple diseases and even cancer. In addition, the unsanitary method of the bile’s collection and containment, and the administering of drugs such as antibiotics to bears, make for a toxic – and sometimes deadly – concoction.
Lloyd-Jones maintains that science is on their side. “Not only is bear farming cruel, but we can prove that the bile extracted is tainted and the bears coming from farms are sick”, she says. She claims that the alternatives to bear bile are cheaper and cruelty-free, and are very effective in treating the conditions bear bile is prescribed for.
Over 50 herbal substitutes for bear bile are listed in the Chinese pharmacopeia, and numerous synthetic alternatives exist.
Robinson reveals that many Traditional Chinese Medicine doctors are among those now rejecting bear bile. AAF has had great success in encouraging pharmacy shop owners to relinquish their bear bile supplies and pledge to become bear bile-free.
Support is pouring in from multiple corners. Prominent Chinese personalities, students, academics, members of the public and the media are joining the growing chorus of voices speaking out against bear farming.
Robinson says that this “new movement of people rising up” against the “hideous” practice of bear farming is what sustains her faith that it will one day be consigned to history.
Day to day, she is inspired by seeing the “beautiful, forgiving rescued bears” at the rescue centre, “enjoying their freedom with the choice of swimming in pools, playing with friends in the grass, or sleeping under the sun”.
The legacy of those lost
Sadly, La Jana’s time in the sun was fleeting. Although finally free of the cage and the catheter, the bear bile industry had not yet softened its grip on her.
Cancer began to ravage her liver, and started to consume this sweet bear whose own body never truly belonged to her.
She did get to experience some beautiful moments of freedom before her passing, like those lazy afternoons on the grass. I also recall times when several of us spoiled her with an endless feast of fruit in the knowledge she didn’t have much time left on this earth.
Although underweight and growing weaker by the day, her sparkling soul continued to shine through.
Liver cancer is frighteningly prevalent in farmed bears. Many of the lucky bears who are cared for in the tranquil surrounds of the rescue centre carry a heavy burden of illness from their oppressive former lives.
Although the battle is not yet won, fortunately for the other bears currently suffering in silence on farms, AAF's indomitable spirit is absolutely unyielding.
“No matter how long it takes, we have to stop bear farming and we know we will. It’s just a matter of time”, insists Lloyd-Jones.
Robinson’s optimism is also unshakable. “We are finally turning the corner and people are no longer willing to accept this systematic torture and exploitation of the bears”, she says.
She is confident that her team’s work and tenacity will “relegate bear farming to the history books of shame and see as many bears as possible free from their torture traps, enjoying their first glimpse of spring”.
I don’t doubt it for a second.
Jill Robinson, Founder and CEO of Animals Asia Foundation, will be speaking at a series of events in Australia and New Zealand in early June. For event information, see: www.animalsasia.org/roadshow
Animals Asia has been holding screenings of Cages of Shame in Australia, the US and the UK. For more information on the film, visit: http://www.cagesofshame.com/
Susannah Waters is associate editor at The Scavenger. Susannah volunteered at the Animals Asia Moon Bear Rescue Centre for several months in 2006.
Photos: Jill Robinson during the Shandong bear rescue in April 2010 (photo courtesy of AAF); ex-farmed bears relaxing and playing at the Moon Bear Rescue Centre (both photos: writer’s own).