Bear Bile Farms in China
Part II: Acting Locally
The Satya Interview with Jill Robinson
Read part 1 of this interview
Bears indulge in a picnic.
Photo courtesy of Animals Asia Foundation.
How do you deal with people who want to continue profiting
from bear farming?
Well, there’s a few ways. Number one is when a farm closes we
compensate the farmer so he goes away with money in his pocket to start
a new livelihood. We do not leave any impoverished because we realized
that whilst they’ve been performing a practice which is distasteful
for many people—not only in the West but in China—the fact
is, they’d been earning a living from it, and to see these people
penniless does not sit well when you’re working in the country
itself. We need to have programs [that are] realistic to the local
community and the government and to cause farmers to in effect be impoverished
is not a good strategy. So they have enough money to start something
In August, Animals Asia co-hosted the first ever bear farm workshop
in Beijing, where experts, government officials, Chinese medicine practitioners,
animal welfare advocates, and bear farmers were brought together to
discuss the problems of farming endangered bears for their bile.
It was very interesting because it opened a lot of people’s eyes
to the practice of bear farming. We had bear farmers as well—we
wanted a balanced conference. But almost from the first second, the
farmers accused us of showing old material from illegal farms. We quickly
blew that argument out of the water in front of the government officials
by saying that this was a government-invited visit to bear farms in
Yunnan Province this past May, and the pictures we were showing were
very much up-to-date evidence of the impacts—both mental and
physical—that this industry is causing to endangered Asiatic
There were other people offering very interesting options. There was an expert
from the U.S., Bruce Krider, who was responsible for the development of Western-type
hospitals in China. These joint ventures encouraging Western-type hospitals combined
with Chinese practices are becoming very popular. He said that this billion-dollar
industry would not consider practices like prescribing bear bile because there
are so many beneficial alternatives; and it wouldn’t be tolerated. So,
Bruce made a very spectacular offer for the bear farmers. He offered them to
sell out their bear farms and invest in the hospitals that he was building—investments
which would recoup huge benefit over the years to come. I think the hospital
in Beijing was making something like $50 million (U.S.) profit a year. That was
quite a significant offer.
Were there any takers?
[Laughs.] The response from the farmers was very interesting and shows that there
is a quite diverse area between the very poor farmers that we find in China and
the very rich farmers, obviously of whom these were. The response was ‘You’d
better not build Western hospitals in China, you better invest in bear farms
[Laughs.] That’s kind of original.
[Laughs.] It’s not really surprising, to be honest, noting the comments
and disruption made by these farmers all through the conference. But these initiatives
are on the table and are offered with open hearts and minds. So at least the
government can see that people are thinking about this industry and how to wind
it down. And when you compare it to other huge industries in China, it’s
not that significant; it would not be that hard to close down. So we’re
trying to come up with solutions for the government, where they can facilitate
in closing an industry that really has huge impacts on their image now and on
China as a whole. And there is no better time as now when we’re approaching
the Olympics in 2008.
Speaking of the Chinese government, how did you initiate negotiations with them
and arrive at the agreement on the 500 bears?
It’s taken a long time. I’ve been working with the government personally
now for about ten years. It’s very much a case of building up what we call
guanxi (gwanshee), which simply means “close connections,” and keeping
and expanding those connections. When I first began, obviously the Chinese government
was very resistant to what they termed “interference,” especially
from a Westerner who presumably knew nothing about internal practices. In the
beginning, people want to latch onto the question, “What’s in it
for you?” I think there was almost stunned disbelief that we weren’t
doing this [to] benefit ourselves but rather animals that they thought of as
precious resources who were performing a very positive function in traditional
Chinese medicine. It was only after working with them and getting Chinese doctors
to talk about the alternatives and the threat to the image of Chinese medicine
and the country that the government began to recognize that we sincerely wanted
this rescue because of the bears themselves. At the same time, we injected funding
into other projects that would sit more comfortably with the government, where
they recognized that our remit on animal welfare could help a lot of species
and indeed the government itself in their conservation programs.
We finally reached the point in July of 2000 where they agreed to sign a contract
with Animals Asia to rescue the 500 bears, and to work towards the elimination
of the practice. Now when I talk about ending bear farming, it’s very confusing.
The government officials signed that contract publicly—in Hong Kong in
front of the world’s media and in China, again, in front of the world’s
media—and they really wouldn’t be allowed to do that without the
sanction of the central government. The problem is that there are other government
departments that want bear farming to continue and the central government is
sitting on the fence and not coming out with a policy saying that bear farming
will end today. This is causing a huge amount of confusion in the country. Basically,
Animals Asia’s rescue work and public education programs are being allowed
to expand and grow, and are being used, I think, as a mouthpiece. We are the
ones convincing people in China that bear farming should end, rather than the
government coming out against the practice—remember, they were encouraging
when it began in the early 1980s—which would leave them with egg on their
face. So it’s a very strategic policy, I think, that they’re allowing
Animals Asia, a nongovernmental group, to spread public awareness and education
on this issue in an effort to turn people’s opinion away from the practice.
As a Westerner, how do you deal with the distrust people must have for you?
Well I think sometimes it actually helps being a Westerner, especially a woman
and a quietly spoken one at that. You can often slip around the back door to
be honest [laughs] and there’s almost surprise while you’re building
an element of trust at the same time. Our reputation is at the stage now where
people can see we have a history of working in China and that many projects we
have set up have helped both people and animals. So there’s more inherent
trust now in our strategies and the way that we’re progressing. Sometimes
it’s difficult to battle, I guess, the, as you say, cultural and the historic
aspects regarding the use of bear bile. But we work with the traditional Chinese
medicine community, so instead of our standing up and pointing the finger against
this practice, Chinese doctors themselves are doing it for us. And we have very
eminent, respected doctors at senior years who have practiced in the country
for a lifetime saying that you do not need bear bile to cure people’s illnesses
and problems. No one is going to die for the lack of bear bile. And to have a
Chinese doctor being our mouthpiece is obviously the best strategy of all.
The other thing about working in China is the fact that with the bear sanctuary
itself, we are working very closely with the local community. We’re bringing
in materials and constructing bear dens and facilities on site which are using
local resources, local manpower. We’re employing 60 local Chinese workers,
and that’s not even the construction team, that’s the security guards,
bear workers, horticultural people, maintenance and administration people, etc.
A lot of our bear dens are being thatched—we’re bringing in local
talents that were beginning to die out and reinventing them so that people can
take pride in something that’s very much a community spearheaded project.
We’re putting money in people’s pockets and food in people’s
mouths. So the way of working in China, even if you’re a Westerner, is
to think local and be locally inspired and involve people in the community that
then will become the mouthpieces for your work and your projects.
A lot of your work of course is focused on China, but as I’m sure you know,
traditional Chinese medicine has really taken off in the West. Currently, the
FDA does not regulate traditional Chinese herbal remedies. Of course, if the
remedy contains parts of endangered animals, that’s illegal. Do you know
if there is a major market in the U.S. for illegally imported bear bile from
Absolutely, oh god, yes. You can go into any Chinatown and see packaged medicines
very clearly labeled with the original bear farm this bile has been produced
on. So yes there is a very healthy illegal black market in bear bile from China.
About how many bears are currently farmed in China? You said that the “official” number
was something around 7,000. Is that right?
That’s right. The official figure is 7,004. Many groups believe the number
is closer to 9,000. The jury is out. What we know is that in southern China the
industry seems to be reducing quite significantly. When we go to these bear farms,
we see a lot of empty cages, a lot of impoverished farmers that want to sell
out of their business. In the north of China the story is very different. A lot
of the state-run farms are expanding and breeding on site. The proximity to South
and North Korea, and to Japan, where our investigations have revealed a flourishing
illegal trade—people are buying bear gallbladder products in the northern
provinces of China and smuggling them back to their countries.
The total number of bears you’ve rescued so far is 140. And you’ve
got another crew coming in soon of how many?
We’ve got another 46 bears coming in November, and another 40 bears coming
early next year, with another bear farmer wanting to sell out—a whole other
bear farm of 90 bears. That farm is particularly interesting because we visited
that same farmer in 1999, who was boasting about his humane practices of bile
extraction and how successful he was in the bear farming community. That farmer
has contacted us in recent months and says he wants out of the business because
it’s going nowhere.
With the rescued bears, how do you help such abused creatures learn to trust
people and how do you treat their injuries, both physical and psychological?
It’s a great question, Cat. Not easily. It’s a very slow process
to restore their physical and mental capabilities. These bears are violently
aggressive when they come in, understandably, having been treated so badly for
anything up to 20 years of their lives. They’re missing limbs, very often,
from being caught in the wild. And the characters of wild-caught bears are very
different to captive-bred bears even in the cages—not only if they’ve
got all four paws, their personalities are very different. We’ve had to
sadly euthanize one bear who self-mutilated. We got her better physically but
we couldn’t get her better mentally. She’d bite down on her own limb
to the bone; we couldn’t do anything for her. That’s the mental impact.
It’s very hard.
As soon as the bears come in they get rehydrated. They get assessed for all their
injuries and get medications and prepared for surgery. They get toys for the
first time in their lives; and rotations every day of enrichment programs to
keep them busy and occupied, even in their wire cages where we’re assessing
them over the first few weeks. They get foliage and vegetation—a completely
new life. You very quickly start to see a turn-around in their personalities,
when these violent aggressive animals suddenly start to trust the same species
[that abused them]. And when you come to their cages they realize that you’re
not going to cause them pain anymore.
At the same time, as I said, you’re assessing their injuries. They’re
coming in with abdominal hernias the size of footballs where their muscle has
broken down from the previous surgery. It’s beyond belief. Just when you
think you’ve seen it all…a new truck arrives with bears that are
in an even worse condition. We have bears with massive tumors in their abdomens,
with cancers of the face, massive hair loss across their body, bleeding wounds
and limbs and paws. They need surgery lasting from about three to seven hours.
They need dental to repair the canine teeth that have been cut back and are rotting
away. They need surgery on abdomens that have abscesses; old swabs left behind
from previous surgery and catheters that have slipped back into the gallbladder;
ulcers; cancers; gallstones the size of my fist. All of these things add up and
must be incredibly painful for these bears. But a few weeks after surgery, having
all this enrichment and then being released into dens and slowly integrated with
members of their own species before finally going into the bamboo forest enclosure,
is a growing period, both for bears and people. It’s wonderful to see them
turn around and forgive us.
Tell me about the forest enclosure.
We have about 20 bears in bamboo forest enclosures of about two or three acres,
enclosed by chain-link fence and electric fencing. The bears get recalled every
night back into their dens, into cozy hanging basket beds, where they’re
safe for the night and again, the next morning, they get let out. Now if they
don’t want to come back, they don’t have to. They have what they’ve
never had before in their lives: they have the choice. We find that they do like
to come back.
Well, who wouldn’t with all that great food and attention?
[Laughs.] Exactly. You have sometimes two or even three bears sharing the same
hanging basket bed. It’s really sweet to see them.
Your website says it’s a sanctuary that is “helping bears—and
people alike.” How does your sanctuary also help people?
As I say, it’s helping provide local employment and bringing in local resources
as well. It’s creating a program of pride, I think, within the Chinese
medicine community; and with government officials who never anticipated that
a practice so internationally degraded and criticized could actually turn around
and gain China praise for doing the right thing. So when we have press conferences,
those government officials very proudly stand next to us and talk about their
part in the China Bear Rescue. These officials actually say that in the last
six years of working with Animals Asia, their whole mindset has changed—that
before, they encouraged bear farming, they thought it was a good thing, and today
they do not. Today they are completely against the practice and want it to end.
To me, it’s a fantastically satisfying program; it makes me very proud.
It shows that people who previously promoted and believed in bear farming now
understand and accept that at long long last, it’s not a practice that
belongs in a civilized country.
The sanctuary is going to be open to the public. Is that correct?
Yes, it is, we hope in the next year. Although this year we’ve begun “soft” openings,
where people can come every month on a pre-arranged tour of the sanctuary.
It says a lot that bears who have been so abused can actually trust people. What
are some of the things that you have learned from the bears?
The main thing that all of us learn from bears is forgiveness. It’s a very
humbling experience working with them. You learn to have joy for every single
part of life as the bears do. Just to see them in the morning when those den
doors open and they go tumbling out into the forest areas, they’re like
children at playtime, facing a new day, so excited at what it has to offer them.
I mean, every time the bell goes to bring them out into the sunshine, all of
us are watching those first few minutes. It’s almost like a magnet to see
these animals, to see three-legged—even two-legged—animals bursting
out into the new day.
Wow. Is there anything you’d like to add?
With a bear’s lifespan of 30 years, the one thing we are desperate for
is financial help: one bear alone costs us $600 (U.S.) to feed every year; the
program is costing us $60,000 every month. It’s a huge program. I hope
people will take confidence and faith in this because I’m convinced that
together we will end bear farming very soon.
Too many people give up on China and feel that there’s no capacity to change,
especially with something as old as traditional Chinese medicine, and it seems
that left and right, you’re proving that wrong.
It’s the voice of the people and the country itself, they’re fantastic.
We do lectures at ordinary universities, we get students and teachers to sign
pledges never to use or prescribe bear bile. I have Chinese people coming to
our education center and sobbing because they’re so ashamed that such a
practice could be happening in the country of their birth. We have busloads of
students coming to see us, asking, “How can we help, what can we do to
end this industry?” The energy and passion they have is fantastic. And
they’re the people that will drive the final destruction of the bear farming
industry, I’m sure.
What I appreciate about your approach is one of the first things you
we opened this conversation, is that you aimed to “restore respect” for
animals in Asian areas. That suggests that the respect is there, it’s just
a question of restoring it.
Exactly, it is. You’re absolutely right. It’s inherent, but it’s
dormant, perhaps. People my age have lived through the Cultural Revolution, lived
through incredible poverty, have only had the mindset of how to find enough money
to feed their family. There’s never been a consciousness towards actively
helping animal welfare, and today that’s very different. The economy is
stronger, certainly there’s more information now, especially with the Internet—students
get to talk with international environmental groups, and evolve a new consciousness
of animal welfare and protection. And they have an inherent love, now, that’s
beginning to come out and they say, “How can we be a part of helping a
species in our country?”
To learn more about Animals Asia and their bear sanctuary, visit www.animalsasia.org.