Traditional Chinese Medicine has used bear bile for thousands of years to cure ailments such as impotence, cardiac illness, eye problems and various other health issues. The widespread use of bear bile in Asian countries has created a thriving market that has led to the lucrative, and inhumane, business of bear farming. Bear farms keep multiple bears confined inside small cages where they are kept immobile so that their bile may be easily, but painfully, extracted.
Cheaper, cleaner, and more humane alternatives are available today making the use of bear bile obsolete and outdated, however the trade continues to thrive.
Jill Robinson is the founder of Animals Asia, an organization based out of Hong Kong that is devoted to putting an end to bear farming.
How did you first become involved with bear farming?
Jill: It was while I was working as a consultant for the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW). In 1993, I joined an organised tour to a bear farm in southern China and managed to slip away from the group and saw the bears in cages and was horrified by what I saw. It was a torture chamber, a hell-hole for animals. I made a promise to the bears that day to work to end their suffering and not to stop until the last bear farm was closed.
What are the conditions like for the bears?
Jill: Quite simply, the conditions are horrific. In China, bears are kept in cages so small that they can’t even stand up or turn around. Some of the cages have metal grilles inside that the farmers use to push the bears flat to the bottom bars to make bile extraction easier. In some cases these grilles have rusted in place, meaning the bears have been completely immobile for weeks or months.
Many of the bears we’ve rescued have been brutalised by the farmers to make them less threatening – they’ve been de-clawed and had their teeth smashed out. They are fed a tasteless, gruel – and only enough to keep them alive, as a starving bear produces more bile. They have no free access to water even in mid-summer.
The bears are usually milked twice a day and the extraction process is excruciatingly painful. Today, most of the bears in China are subjected to the “free-drip” method of bile extraction. A permanent hole is cut into the abdomen through to the gall bladder and the bile drips from the wound, which is invariably infected and inflamed. Malnutrition sometimes leads to blindness and the terrible conditions generally mean the bears we rescue have an array of other debilitating conditions, such as severe arthritis, peritonitis, weeping ulcers.
Are there any laws regulating how the bears are treated?
Jill: China has no animal-welfare laws at all. A few years ago, the authorities, in response to lobbying by Animals Asia and others, introduced regulations that they claimed improved the welfare conditions of the farmed bears. To abide by the new regulations, bear farms must:
Only use the free-drip method of bile extraction
Only cage the bears during bile extraction – the rest of the time they should be in an outdoor play area
Only milk bears that are three years or over and weigh 100kg or over.
However, the free-drip method is just as inhumane as the previous method (a catheter permanently implanted in the bear’s abdomen), and sadly, a lack of monitoring and enforcement means that the bears are still kept in tiny cages all the time.
How do you rehabilitate them once they have been rescued? How do they respond to their new freedom?
Jill: The rescued bears leave the farms in an appalling state, many suffering from crippling ailments, such as arthritis, peritonitis, weeping ulcers and ingrown claws. They all need surgery to remove their damaged gall bladders, many have broken teeth from years of biting the bars of their cages, a third are missing limbs and all are in a state of severe psychological trauma. Remarkably though, nearly all of these intelligent, forgiving animals are able to put the past behind them, learning to walk, run, swim, climb and interact with the other rescued bears.
How has the bear farming industry changed since you first started campaigning against it?
Jill: What we have seen is a consolidation of smaller farms into bigger operations. So while on paper, it looks like the industry has shrunk, in fact just as many bears are suffering. Also, traditionally bear bile was used solely as a health tonic to treat “heat-related” conditions (eg, eye and liver complaints), but today we’re finding it in products like shampoo, toothpaste and wine. As the traditional market falls away, the industry is looking for new ways to market the bile to the younger generation.
What are some of the biggest obstacles you face?
Jill: Our greatest difficulty from the start in the bear farming campaign has always been the deceit in the industry. In China, we are proud to be working with our government partners; the CWCA in Beijing and the Sichuan Forestry Department, and could not continue this rescue without them. However, we are desperately frustrated too. We hear farmers saying their farms are operating under high standards and treating the bears humanely, but we have never ever seen a farm or surgical procedure where this could be true. The bears are literally at death’s door when they arrive at our sanctuary and their wounds and trauma speak for themselves.
Also, almost every gall bladder we remove contains pus-infected bile. When the bears die at our sanctuary, most cases are related to liver tumours, leading to a yet unproven hypothesis of a tumour factor connected with this infected bile and the liver cancer found in the bears. What it does to the end consumer remains unknown. This is also our biggest frustration that the decision-makers in China do not see the truth for what it is.
What can people in the United States do to help the bears?
Jill: We now have Animals Asia support groups in New York, California and Washington DC, so anyone living nearby could join a group to help raise vital funds for our work. And of course, we’d love to hear from people willing to start new support groups in their own states.
Another great way they can help is to buy their Holiday gifts through Animals Asia. This year, we have some great “gifts for the bears”, so instead of giving more socks or ties, they can buy a gift for the recovering bears at our sanctuaries – a pot of honey, life-saving surgery, play equipment – and we’ll send their loved one a beautiful card. So it’s really giving twice, and best of all, the bears receive a much-deserved gift that will help them forget their tortured pasts.