BEARS ARE intelligent creatures with a special appeal to humans. They have expressive eyes and faces, and a human-like way of moving and using their forelegs as “hands”. It's no accident that children have “teddy bears” as comforting toys. There are many examples of bears in children's books, from Baloo the bear in the Jungle Book to Winnie-the-Pooh, Paddington Bear and many others.
Of course, the reality is that bears are wild animals, no more friendly than lions or tigers. At least, they are meant to be free-living wild animals. The sad truth is that in some parts of the world, bears are kept in captivity, exploited by humans.
Bear farming is based on the discovery, many centuries ago, that bile extracted from the gall bladder of bears has powerful pharmaceutical properties. Bear bile was originally harvested from dead bears that had been hunted. It's only in more recent times that somebody discovered that if bears were kept in captivity, their bile could be harvested by poking a needle into their abdomen. This allows a bear's bile to be extracted on multiple occasions, rather than just acquiring a one-off sample from a dead bear.
Bile is a digestive juice, produced by the liver and stored in the gall bladder: this happens in all mammals. Whenever fatty food is eaten, bile is excreted from the gall bladder into the intestines, where it mixes with the food, assisting in digestion.
A bear's gall bladder contains a significant volume of bile, and over a thousand years ago, traditional Chinese medical practitioners discovered that this could be used to treat a range of illnesses. Their observations were not imaginary. Bile contains ursodeoxycholic acid (UDCA), a chemical that is still used today in the treatment of liver disease. As a vet practising in the 21st century, I regularly prescribe this chemical for dogs and cats suffering from hepatitis. However the UCDA that I use has been manufactured by pharmaceutical companies, after extraction and purification from farm animals that have been killed humanely in slaughter houses. It's a by product of meat production. There is nothing special about bear bile compared to the same product from cattle, pigs and sheep.
Despite this modern scientific approach in the Western world, over ten thousand bears are still kept on bile farms in China, with around 2,400 suffering the same fate in Vietnam. The bears live in tiny metal cages in industrial farms, having the bile regularly extracted from their gall bladders.
The bile extraction can be done in various ways, but there is no painless way of doing it. The simplest approach is repeated injection, when an ultrasound machine is used to locate the gall bladder which is then punctured with a syringe and needle, sucking out the bile. To save time, the permanent implantation of a tube through the abdomen and into the gall bladder is sometimes carried out. In other cases, a “free drip” method is used, when a permanent hole, or fistula, is made in the bear's abdomen and gall bladder. Bile drips out of this, collecting in a tray beneath the bear.
With each of these methods, infected wounds and serious illnesses are common: the life expectancy of farmed bears is only five years, compared to thirty years in the wild. In some ways, this short life might be seen as a blessing, when you see how the farmed bears suffer.
Animals Asia Foundation, a Hong-Kong based charity, has been campaigning for fifteen years to end the practice of bear farming. They recently visited a bear farm, and sent me a shocking video of what they found.
A large, airy shed contained around twenty metal cages, supported on metal legs, spaced a few yards apart from one another. Each cage was just big enough to enclose the large bear that lives in it.
The bears were Asiatic Bears, known as “Moon Bears” because of the crescentshaped white patch on their chest. They are around the size of large pigs: just small enough to fit into the metal cages. There was
“The attitude of the Chinese public and authorities has begun to turn against bear farming”
not even enough space for the bears to turn around. In the video, the bears displayed stereotypical behaviours, graphic evidence of the immense stress that they were suffering. One bear repeatedly and continuously chewed at the metal bars in front of him. Another bear swung his head from side to side, like the pendulum of a clock: there were blood stains on the metal cage from where he had injured himself as he did this.
Thanks to campaigners, the attitude of the Chinese public and authorities has begun to turn against bear farming, with surveys showing that 87% now believe that it's wrong and should be made illegal. If this momentum continues, bear farming will soon be consigned to the past.
In the mean time, the Animals Asia Foundation is working hard on the ground, rescuing bears. Last week, a major victory was announced. A bear bile farm in Nanning, China, has agreed to allow its premises to be converted into a bear sanctuary following an unprecedented change of heart by the farm's owners. The project will mean a €3.6 million investment by Animals Asia, covering the initial rescue and medical treatment of the bears, followed by the conversion of the farm to a sanctuary, as well as budgeting for three years of bear care.
Financial support is crucial to the achievement of goals like the abolishing of bear farms: if you want to help, visit www.peacebypiece.animalsasia.org to find out more.
Bear farming is based on the discovery, many centuries ago, that bile extracted from the gall bladder of bears has powerful pharmaceutical properties