How many ways can we find to torture animals or profit by their needless suffering?  I asked myself that, when I first heard about this incredibly cruel practice that has been apparently going on for some time.  Sadly, bear bile farms are among those that haven’t received as much attention as the many other pressing issues surrounding animals, which is why I decided to look further into this abhorrent activity.  What prompted me to take a closer look was a photo of a tiny cage that contained a bear who could only lie there, unable to move or walk or stand.  I felt the anxiety and panic that one must feel if they were squeezed into a coffin with bars, where they would have to live out their existence, while also being subjected to routine painful procedures.

Throughout Asia, over 12,000 bears are held captive on bear farms; and most of them are kept in “crush” or extraction cages the size of a phone booth.  They are essentially coffins made of metal bars, in which the bear cannot stand or easily turn around. . .24/7.  Does that make you feel as claustrophobic as it does me?  According to Wikipedia, the cages measure around 2.6’ x 4.4’ x 6.5’ for an animal weighing between 110 to 260 pounds.  They live this way for approximately 10 to 12 years.  According to HSUS, there are several farms that move the bears to the smaller cages for milking, and the rest of the time permit them to live in larger enclosures.  However, these farms seem to be in the minority. 

Asiatic black bears (also known as “Moon bears”), and now the North American black bear, are the targets for bile farming.  The population count of the former is diminishing in China, causing concern.  Chinese bear farms are considered to be one way to reduce the demand on the wild bear population.  Thus, the government views the farming as an answer to the loss of wild bears from poaching.  According to Chinese officials, approximately 7,600 captive bears are being farmed, thereby taking the place of 10,000 wild bears needing to be killed each year to produce as much bile.  Due to the fact that Asiatic bears are now so rare and endangered, poachers and traders are turning to the next closest kin, the North American black bear, in order to meet demand.

Bears can be seen in extreme distress, often rubbing or hitting themselves against the bars of their enclosures.  They suffer muscle atrophy, bang their heads against their cages, chew their paws and exhibit signs of mental stress.  The mortality rate is high on these farms, and with good reason.

Bile bears suffer from various maladies including stunted growth, hair loss, malnutrition, muscle mass loss, and the extraction of their teeth and claws.  Once the bears stop producing bile, they are often killed for their meat or fur; and their paws and gall bladders are considered a delicacy by some.  These victims live a horrible, painful, stressful existence during their lifetime.  In fact, a mother bear reportedly killed her own cub and then herself in order to spare them both the agony of life on a bear bile farm.

Why is bear bile so sought-after?  Apparently, it is a valuable ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine.  The bile, which is a digestive juice produced by the liver and stored in the gall bladder, is believed to reduce fever, improve eyesight, protect the liver, and break down gallstones.  Although Chinese doctors have endorsed several cheap, effective and readily available alternatives in the form of herbal (coptis or rhubarb) and synthetic substitutes, some practitioners continue to prescribe whole bear bile and reject any form of modern substitute.  This in turn, continues to drive the demand. 

The harvesting and extraction methods cause intense suffering to the bears and are usually carried out by untrained farm workers, with no veterinary experience.   There are three ways that bile is accessed:

The first is by the insertion of a syringe deep into the bear’s body to extract the bile;

another way is by the implanting of a tube leading into the gall bladder, allowing bile to be extracted several times a day.  This causes great pain and discomfort, as the abdominal wound is opened up to three times a day;

a third method involves leaving caged bears to reach a certain age and then killing them.  The bile is then extracted.

Surgeries to create fistulas are performed without appropriate antibiotics or pain management, thereby causing great suffering to the bears, who are repeatedly exposed to this process since the fistulas often heal over.  There is often infection at the incision site and about one third of fistulated bears experience abdominal hernias and liver cancer.

As you can imagine, none of these methods are humane.  Bears subjected to these barbaric procedures sometimes die, or suffer from serious ongoing health problems.  They are vulnerable to infections, open wounds, tumors, gallstones, abscesses. . .and a life of constant pain and stress.  Those bears who stop producing bile after a few years, are left to die or are killed.

While the Chinese government established a Technical Code of Practice for Raising Black Bears (requiring hygienic and humane techniques and conditions), a 2007 Veterinary Report (published by Animals Asia Foundation) stated that the code was not being enforced.  Many bears were still spending their lives in tiny cages without access to sufficient food or water, and experiencing pain, distress, and a general lack of wellbeing.

They were being starved, as hungry bears produce more bile.  This is still their fate today.

In the United States, a bill was introduced in New York on March 14, 2011, that would ban commercial trade of bear gallbladders and bile.  New York is among five states that have allowed this trade. 

Meanwhile, several international organizations continue to conduct ongoing undercover investigations and campaigns towards ending bear bile farming.  Check them out and lend your support either by signing petitions, helping spread the word, and/or contributing financially: www.wspa-usa.org/, www.bornfreeusa.org/, and www.animalsasia.org/

To view an undercover investigation, go to www.youtube.com/watch?v=r9snODccgIc (The Bear Bile Business).

 bear bile coffins 

Photo courtesy of WSPA-USA

– Annoula Wylderich

Advertisements