Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Horrors of Bear Bile Farming

I recently inquired about a job at Bear Country USA, a bear sanctuary and animal park in Rapid City, South Dakota. The deal was pretty well in the bag until I discovered their history of killing bears in order to harvest and sell the gall bladders. Despite this being an act of illegal poaching, somehow it was handled legally under a state permit. However that happened, it killed the job prospects for me and made me realize that I had never posted a topic about the insidious practice of bear bile farming, an issue of extreme importance.

Across China and Vietnam, an estimated 12,000 to 14,000 Asiatic black bears (also called moon bears) are kept in captivity for the purpose of harvesting the bile produced by their livers and stored in their gall bladders, due to concentrations of ursodeoxycholic acid (UDCA), which is used in traditional Chinese medicine to reduce fever, improve eyesight, and break down gallstones. Others claim that it actually has no medicinal value at all and is instead sold as an aphrodisiac. Either way, the high demand for the bile has led to extensive farming of bears.

In the bile extraction process, the bears are kept in "crush cages" that are not much bigger than the animals themselves. While this allows for easier access to the abdomen, it also prevents the bears from standing and, in some cases, from moving at all, often resulting in the animal's skin growing around the bars of the cages. When the skin is pulled free, it can leave wounds up to three feet in diameter. Many of the bears spend most of their lifetimes in these cages and develop mental illnesses or physical defects. Hair loss, malnutrition, and loss of muscle mass afflict these bears, and they often have their teeth and claws either extracted or filed down. Many of the bears are inflicted with so much pain that they wail and moan, slam their heads against the bars of their cages, or even chew off their own paws. When the bears stop producing bile, they are either left to starve in their cages or are killed for their meat, fur, paws, and gall bladders.

The bile extraction process itself is extremely horrific, occurring through an implanted tube. Other methods involve pushing a hollow steel stick through the bear's abdomen. A new free drip method has since been developed that is regarded as "more humane"; however, in this procedure, a permanent hole is opened into the bear's abdomen and gall bladder, allowing the bile to drip out freely. Sometimes the hole is kept open with a perspex catheter, causing severe pain.

Because only minute amounts of the bile are used in Chinese medicine, a total of 500 kg of extracted bile is used by practitioner's every year, but more than 7,000 kg are being harvested, with the surplus being used in non-essential products such as wine, eyedrops, and other general tonics. The bottom line is that alternative medicines do exist and are just as effective, making the harvesting of bear bile unnecessary and irrelevant.

Chinese bear farmers inexplicably argue that farming reduces the demand for the harvesting of wild bears. Official reports indicate that 7,600 bears are farmed in China and that 10,000 wild bears would need to be killed each year to produce the same amount of bile. However, in some countries poachers are capturing and selling live bears to these farms anyway or are harvesting gall bladders from wild bears in hopes of making their own fortune. Charlie Russell witnessed - and was personally affected - by this kind of activity during his time in Kamchatka, Russia.

In 1993, Nottingham, England resident Jill Robinson visited a bear bile farm in China. She quietly broke away from her tour group and descended a flight of stairs to a dark basement, where she came face to face with the bear cages. She was horrified and, while most of the bears reacted fearfully to her presence, one reached out with its paw and touched her. Robinson reciprocated, holding the paw in her hand. From that moment on, there was no turning back.

For the next seven years, Robinson researched the way bile is used and negotiated a deal with the Chinese government. In 2000, the Sichuan Forestry Department signed a pledge with the China Wildlife Conservation Association to release 500 bears from the bile farms with the worst living conditions. This marked the first time an agency of the Chinese government had come to an official agreement with an animal welfare organization. To house the released bears, Robinson founded Animals Asia Foundation and established a bear rescue center in Chengdu. The foundation has since begun a similar sanctuary in Vietnam.

Incredibly, when the rescued bears began arriving at the sanctuary, workers reported that they initially reacted fearfully and aggressively to people but became friendly and warm when they began to understand that they were being cared for and were not in any danger, demonstrating a very forgiving nature.

While the formation of Animals Asia is a major victory, the horrors of bear bile farming and poaching still continue. It is a monstrous, inhuman torture that must be stopped. We've already seen in this blog how exposure of bears to such kinds of human violence can instigate aggression and attacks on people, so there could be a very dark, negative impact to all of this beyond the effects on the animals. It could very literally come back to bite us. For more information on bile farming, including ways to help, please visit