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November 2004
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 there?
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 and why?
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 region.

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, everything.

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 China?
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 not humane.

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 bile machines.

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 bear bile?
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


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