Dismantling Bear Bile Farms in China
Part I: Staring Down the Face of Evil
The Satya Interview with Jill Robinson
Bear bile farms. It’s difficult to imagine a
more horrific abuse of living creatures: bears immobilized in cages
with catheters collecting bile directly from their gallbladders. Bear
bile is used in traditional Chinese medicine as a remedy for various
ailments. In an effort to curb the illegal hunting of wild endangered
Asiatic black or Moon bears for their gallbladders, captive-bred bear
farms were encouraged by the Chinese government in the early 1980s.
In the early 1990s, Jill Robinson investigated a bear farm
and the horror she witnessed changed the course of her life forever. As a
result, she founded the Animals Asia Foundation to raise awareness of animal
issues in China and elsewhere, focusing on the cruelty of bear farming and
working to change the way people think of food animals, namely dogs. Working
with practitioners of traditional medicine and the Chinese government, the
tide is changing. Research has revealed natural and synthetic alternatives
to bear bile, which are equally as effective. In 2000, the Chinese government
signed an unprecedented agreement with Animals Asia to work toward closing
bear farms and promoting the use of bile alternatives. Under the contract,
500 bears will be transferred to Animals Asia’s state-of-the-art rescue
center in China’s Sichuan Province.
Currently, Robinson commutes between Hong Kong and the bear
sanctuary in China. Just returning from Bangkok, Jill Robinson spoke
with Catherine Clyne about bear farming and the success
of their campaign to end this industry.
You were just at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered
Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) conference in Bangkok. Why were you
Gail, our veterinary director, and I went together. She went to listen to
the status of what is happening now to various endangered species. I went
along to connect with different nongovernmental organizations and with government
officials from Beijing and Vietnam, both countries in which we’re working.
We were also advertising our program called “Detective Dog,” which
features Simba, an animal parts sniffer dog, who detects bear bile, ivory,
tiger bone and musk. At CITES I discussed Simba with customs departments
of various countries.
The “Detective Dog” program is part of your campaign
to stop people from eating dogs. Is that correct? Can you talk about the
idea behind that?
That’s right. It’s a program pointing the finger at communities
and governments; it’s a sensitive way of trying to turn people’s
mindset and consciousness away from this traditional concept of seeing dogs
as food. In the West, it’s very well accepted [that dogs aren’t
food], but in the East it’s a very innovative concept.
Can you tell us about the Animals Asia Foundation? When was it founded
I founded the Animals Asia Foundation in 1998 basically to try to draw people’s—local
communities’—respect to animal issues in this region. At the
time there were very few local groups and I was working for the International
Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), an international group, which was doing fantastic
projects but I felt there was a need for connecting on a more local level.
Our remit is very simple: to simply restore respect for animals in the Asia
Can you tell us about the China Bear Rescue campaign? That’s
your primary campaign right now, correct?
It is, it’s our spearhead campaign. The China Bear Rescue really began
for me personally in 1993 when I went as an undercover investigator to a
bear farm in China. I’d been briefed about the farm by a journalist
friend. When we got onto the farm, I broke away from the group and found
some steps that led into a basement below the farms and I walked around a
very dark and eerie room that held 32 Asiatic black bears. As I was walking
around the room I heard a nervous popping vocalization. My eyes hadn’t
quite got used to the darkness but I realized the bears were in cages and
each time I walked close to the cages this vocalization became louder and
more frantic. That was the first lesson I’d ever learned from this
species: fear. Obviously my presence meant one thing for them: the painful
extraction of their bile. They didn’t distinguish between me and the
farmer, the very presence of a human meant the next few minutes of pain and
suffering, which they endured twice a day.
Wow. Had anything prepared you for that experience?
No, nothing. I’d seen a few pictures but I knew very little about the
practice of bear farming. At the time I actually knew nothing about the species
of Asiatic black bears or Moon bears. As I was walking around, I must have
stepped back in shock and I felt something touch my shoulder and I turned
around in fright. There was a female bear with her paw stretched through
the bars of the cage and I did something which in retrospect is very stupid—I
knew nothing about bears; today I would never do anything like this, you
know from instinct that you don’t touch a wild unprotected animal,
and certainly not one that’s in a cage for bile extraction. When we
see these bears today, they are highly aggressive, violent animals. But anyway,
it seemed the most natural thing in the world to hold this bear’s paw,
which is what I did. And rather than ripping my arm from my shoulder, which
she had every right to do, all this bear did was squeeze my fingers, very
rhythmically and our eyes connected. I can’t tell you, it was just
a defining moment in my life. It gave me a message that I didn’t understand
or recognize at the time but now, 11 years later, I absolutely know the reason
why she did that. It changed the dynamics of my career, my future, my life,
That was really where the dream of the China Bear Rescue began. We never
managed to save that bear but I’ve never forgotten her and she’s
become the symbol for our rescue. And the bears that we have now live on
in her memory.
Just to get a basic understanding, why and how are bears farmed in
Bear farming in China began in the early 1980s. It was a practice the government
expanded because they felt it was saving wild bears from being caught for
their whole gall bladders. It was what many groups in China felt was a realistic
approach to the problem. Later on it was found that this sort of initiative
was flawed because whilst bear farms began expanding and people indeed began
buying bile from farmed bears, many people with money simply wanted the real
thing and would still encourage the illegal slaughter of bears in the wild
for this three-ounce bag of liquid gold.
But the government, unfortunately, carried on with the initiative and in
1993, it was calculated there were about 10,000 bears on farms all across
the country. Today that number is estimated at 7,000 kept in deplorable conditions:
milked for their bile either via seven inch-long metal catheters that lead
directly into their gallbladder, causing a massive amount of infection, chronic
pain and eventual death for these bears—a very painful death I might
add—or there is a new “free-dripping fistula” method that’s
touted as a “humane” method of bile extraction.
The China Bear Rescue of Animals Asia has agreed to rescue 500 bears from
the worst farms in China. So when a farm closes, it closes for good. We get
the original license and that farmer can never ever farm bears again; the
government is not issuing any more bear farming licenses in the country.
Now we’ve rescued nearly 140 bears so far and when we get those bears
on our surgery table we can prove without a shadow of a doubt why even the
new method of “humane” bile extraction—the fistula method—is
These bears are obviously dying in huge numbers on the farms from peritonitis,
septicemia, from massive infection that spreads across their bodies. The
bears very often are declawed, and that’s not just delicately trimming
the nails, it’s actually cutting the end digit off of each paw tip
so that nail will never grow again. The canine teeth are cut back to the
gum, to the pulp. They are in cages so small they can hardly move. They have
scars three or four feet in length across their bodies where, very often,
they’ve grown into the cage bars. They have wounds across their heads
where they’ve banged their heads against the cage bars in stereotypic
repetitive behavior [because] they’ve gone cage crazy. They have urine
and fecal burns where they obviously can’t groom themselves properly,
they’re pooing and weeing on themselves. And they have a catalog of
injuries inside their abdomens from the crude surgery to convert them to
I’d like to get back to the farming itself, but so people can
understand, what are considered to be the traditional health benefits of
It’ll be a shock to many of your readers that bear bile does work.
In Chinese pharmacopoeia terms, it’s been used for several thousand
years to treat heat-related illnesses like high fevers and temperatures;
breaking down gallstones; helping red and sore eyes; and [treating] liver
complaints. We went to Western scientists and, to our surprise, when we spoke
to people from Minnesota University in the U.S., we very quickly established
that bear bile has an essential acid, called UDCA (ursodeoxycholic acid),
which could be used to very good effect apparently to rejuvenate cells in
the brain that would otherwise die. It could potentially be used for Huntington’s,
Parkinson’s, and even Alzheimer’s diseases. However, what both
the Minnesota University and Chinese doctors emphasize is that bear bile
can easily and cheaply be replaced. In Western terms, it can be replaced
by synthetic UDCA—you can synthesize it in a laboratory for pennies
and without using any animal parts (although you can also synthesize it from
cow, pig and chicken bile). In Chinese terms it can be replicated by a myriad
of herbal alternatives as well, which are much cheaper and just as effective.
They are just as effective?
Just as effective. There’s not one herb to replace bear bile in its
common form, but combinations of different herbs to benefit the different
illnesses that bear bile previously cured.
Continued in Part II: Acting Locally