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November 2004
Dismantling Bear Bile Farms in China
Part II: Acting Locally
The Satya Interview with Jill Robinson

Read part 1 of this interview

Bears picnicing. Photo: Animals Asia Foundation
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 else.

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 black bears.

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 instead.’

[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 China?
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 said when 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



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