Jill Robinson on saving the threatened ‘moon bears’
The movement to strike at bear bile farming has had its successes in the past decade. Animals Asia has been at the forefront of campaigning against bear farms in China and now also in Vietnam.
Animals Asia founder, Jill Robinson, who embarked on this mission ever since her first visit to a bear bile farm in 1993, gives us an update on the development in stopping this practice.
Q: Your quest started back in 1993 with the founding of Animals Asia Foundation in 1998, after almost two decades of dedication and a seemingly goliath-like battle to get the Chinese government, pharmaceutical industry as well as global communities mobilised, how would you describe your journey and achievements in rescuing the ‘moon bears’ so far?
The images of those bears in 1993 have haunted me ever since and have been the driving force in a campaign which has never lost sight of the final goal.
I knew from the start that no friends would be gained in China by pointing an accusatory finger, or laying blame. With good advice from people in many areas – including one memorable government official, this was the time to gain friends, forge allies, and “start the debate in China”.
Throughout the years I would see the development of animal welfare in general (not just helping the moon bears) – technical expertise, the training of Chinese vets, the conferences for responsible animal management, the growth of animal therapy, and the empowerment of passionate, intelligent welfarists. And throughout these years I waited with quiet optimism, always believing that this time would finally arrive.
Today, this is the China I love. These are the people championing animals. These are the groups that rallied when the organisers of the American rodeo tried to import this ghastly form of entertainment and screamed “not in our back yard” – eventually preventing a multi million dollar spectacle of cruelty from being played out in Beijing. These are the groups that are lobbying against the import of Canadian seal products – disgusted that such cruel abuse of clubbing seals could see their bloodied parts now entering China.
Because what the farmers never anticipated in their wildest dreams, was the new movement of people power in China. After 19 years of being at war with the bear farming industry, we see the unprecedented outrage from the media, celebrities, Chinese medicine doctors, students, academics, and the general public.
And with nearly two decades of research under our belts, after rescuing over 350 previously tortured bears in China and Vietnam, we at Animals Asia have been central in providing damning evidence that simply exposes the truth of a species cruelly exploited for its bile.
Q: Can you give us an update? What is the current situation? Would you say that the practice of bear bile farming is losing its standing?
It seems the tide is, at last, turning. The public in China are rising up like never before and are absolutely outraged against this torture of one of their endangered and protected species. Remember, that one Chinese officials said to me many years ago “start the debate in China” and it is this focus that we have adopted ever since.
Today we are seeing support at all levels of media, government, celebrities, lawyers, doctors… Even students – thousands and thousands of them engaging in public exhibitions – and even squeezing themselves into cages in public places, emulating the suffering of the bears.
The harrowing 45-minute undercover documentary shot by an independent film crew that has been viewed over 1.3 million times, is shocking people to the core. Now being described as the Chinese Cove, it shows bears suffering and dying in tragic circumstances, in both legal and illegal farms – and seeing unprecedented support from the public against bear farming.
The explosion of newspaper, TV, radio and Internet stories has seen citizens pouring online and demanding justice for the bears. Advertising campaigns are rolling out across the country, and people everywhere are signing pledges never to buy or consume bear bile.
There are Chinese medicine shops promising never to sell or prescribe bear bile – and ridding their shelves of all products containing it – which are over 40 so far. Press conferences with doctors stating that the alternatives are just as effective – perhaps more so and themselves calling on the industry to end.
Not surprisingly, with the spotlight on their livelihoods, the farmers are fighting back. Over the last few weeks we have seen a dirty tricks campaign, threats, relentless hacking of our website, smears on our character and more.
But there is no going back. And with new friends such as Yao Ming, the famous retired NBA basketball superstar, who recently toured our sanctuary, met the bears, and pledged to help us with public service announcements, we are all fighting on. Other Chinese celebrities such as Sun Li, and of course Karen Mok who has been our ambassador for many years – the Madonna of Asia – with her own bear Bao Be, keeping the issue in the spotlight and inspiring the younger generation especially how important it is to protect bears for their own sake, rather than how they can benefit humankind.
Q: Who are you working with now, and how is their cooperation/collaboration/partnership significant?
We are working in partnership with the Sichuan Forestry Administration and the China Wildlife Conservation Association in Beijing towards ending bear farming and closing bear farms countrywide. Our agreement stipulates this very clearly and is ratified by Beijing. Sadly the process is slow and we stand ready to rescue more bears – any time, any where.
In addition we are working to influence national government to pass and enforce laws to end bear farming through lobbying and continued development of relationships at central and provincial level. This includes the development of relationships with national legislators (NPCs) and government officials within State and provincial forestry departments, the CWCA, Health & Drug administrations, TCM administrations, Industry and Commercial Administrations.
Our work with eminent professors of pathology is showing the potentially harmful effects on human health that bear bile may have.
Dr Wang Sheng Xiang, a Chinese Pathologist who has examined the livers of 49 bears that have lost their lives also leaves no doubt as to his concerns regarding the consequences of the bear farming industry: “The more I learn about the extraction of bile from bears, the more I would never recommend this kind of drug to my family and friends. I personally think we are better to use alternative drugs and never extract bile from bears. This kind of drug could be harmful to people. “
We are supporting the ground-breaking work of Professor Feng Yibin and his colleagues at the University of Hong Kong School of Chinese Medicine. Professor Feng is researching the effectiveness of various Chinese herbal alternatives for ailments commonly treated using bear bile products and describes studies comparing extracts from two species of the herb “coptis”, against raw bear bile and purified active ingredients from bear bile. The tests showed coptis to be far more effective than bear bile at killing cancer cell lines. This research is ongoing and will help to refute claims that no effective alternatives to bear bile exist.
Q: China is not the only country that practices bear bile farming. This ‘tradition’ also exists and is very much on-going in Vietnam, Laos and Korea. Can you tell us what the biggest operational differences are in stopping bear bile harvesting in Vietnam in comparison with China?
Very simply, bear farming is illegal in Vietnam though people are allowed to keep bears as pets. While they claim bears are not milked, it is widely known that bear farming is a thriving industry in Vietnam.
In Vietnam, the bears are anaesthetised with the illegal drug, ketamine, removed from their small cages, restrained with ropes and jabbed in the abdomen with unsterile four-inch needles until the gall bladder is found. The bile is extracted with a catheter and medicinal pump. The process is excruciating for the bears.
We have rescued 108 bears in Vietnam and have room for many more, but the farms known to be illegal are not being closed down – again we work hard to prove that these farmers are extracting bile against regulations and stand ready to receive such bears at a moments notice. Like China, we have public education programmes, work intensively with the media and the Traditional Medicine community and continue expanding our sanctuary in Tam Dao National Park – near Hanoi – as a both a rescue and educational centre – with the prime focus of closing the industry down.
Q: It is said that the medicinal properties of bear bile can be easily replaced with herbs and modern medicine, why is there a delay in transitioning from one to the other?
Working with doctors in China who promote both the herbal and synthetic alternatives to bear bile, we too are confused and astonished as to why these substitutes do not immediately see the bear farming industry close. As the doctors themselves say: “The bears themselves have cancer, so how can they possibly cure it? The synthetic substitute is ready and available, but has still not been authorised. Why?”
Q: What are the major obstacles you are facing now?
Convincing those in high power of the reality of this industry and encouraging them to close it down once and for all. Again we are astonished that this final decision has not been made when overwhelming evidence points to the disease and mortality in farmed bears – and the consequences to those who consume the diseased and contaminated bile.
The main cause of bear deaths at the China sanctuary is liver tumours. Over 30 per cent of the bears we rescue from farms in China are suffering from liver tumours, which in some cases weigh over 7 kilograms in weight. We believe that this is too high a mortality to be coincidence and continue working with Pathologists in China and Vietnam in relation to a potential link between the contaminated bile, the methods of bile extraction and the liver cancers killing the bears. The bile removed from farmed bears is thick and infected, containing bacteria and cancer cells, blood, pus, urine and faeces and is described by our vets as ‘black sludge’, and “thick, bloody and infected”.
Doctors in Vietnam advise that some of the symptoms of bear bile poisoning are severe liver and kidney damage, jaundice, loss of appetite, fatigue, red eyes, aches and pains in the body, blood in the urine and severe dehydration and perspiration. Four people are known to have died from bear bile poisoning. Doctors in Vietnam also say that bear bile has resulted in impotence in people who took bear bile as an aphrodisiac.
Q: How does an Animals Asia rescue mission work? Can you give us a step by step overview?
We have rescued 277 bears in China.
When Animals Asia receives the bears, they are sometimes still wearing gruesome metal jackets, often suffering from wounds to their noses and muzzles from bar rubbing, their teeth are worn away or are shattered from biting at the cage bars, and their feet are cracked and rotting. Many have teeth and pawtips deliberately cut back by the farmers (to make them less dangerous to milk) and have paws or whole limbs missing, having been trapped in the wild using heavy spring-loaded steel traps that crush and shatter their bones. Many are suffering from an array of ailments including liver cancer, gall bladder cancer, heart disease, arthritis, peritonitis, ulcers and blindness. Many are psychologically scarred as a result of decades of cage confinement and perpetual pain.
Once the bears are brought to Animals Asia’s sanctuaries they are documented, prioritised, and a preliminary check is carried out by the vet team to establish any severe medical condition while the bears are in their cages.
They are then settled into a quarantine area where they are given fruit, water and browse.
The next day the vet team perform health checks documenting injuries and ailments. At this stage they are prescribed medications and scheduled for surgery.
In China, the vet team perform cholecystectomies on the bears removing the gall bladders, which are horribly damaged from the bile extraction process. In Vietnam, where the bile extraction process is different, the gall bladder is not removed as a matter of course, but instead checked and monitored carefully and removed if necessary.
The vets also repair or remove teeth that are broken and shattered from years of bar-biting or deliberate cutting-back by the farmers. Their eyes are checked, claws are clipped, their ears are tagged for identification, blood taken for analysis, and bodies checked again for signs of further wounds and scarring. After this surgery, the vet team will monitor the bears again in their recovery cages as their surgical wounds dry and heal.
The time spent in recovery cages varies according to the scale of the injuries and complications and availability of new dens.
When they are ready, the bears are moved into a bear house with an enclosure. They are moved to whichever house is deemed suitable according to age group, temperament and space available. Some go to the rehab house initially, where they are gradually and carefully integrated with other bears, and learn to use their natural instincts through our enrichment programmes and be bears again. Even then, moving them into a rehab area does not always go smoothly. In their natural state, moon bears are solitary animals, so they don’t always take kindly to the presence of other bears.
It’s a process of cautious trial and error, but eventually the bears are moved into a single or double bear house with a semi-natural enclosure where they can spend their days swimming, enjoying their swings, play-wrestling and climbing. Throughout the day they have the choice of whether to snooze in their dens or rest and play outside in grassy enclosures.
Q: Is there a recent success story you can share with us?
With physical and psychological wounds so severe, the bears are extremely frightening when they arrive from the farms. They are generally thrashing out with strong limbs and long claws and roaring in rage.
This is when we are very very cautious and wary of their presence. However, they slowly come to realise that we are not there to cause them pain and you can see the “light”come on in their eyes as they begin trust us at last.
They make us laugh too. When we have a bad day, there they are, lifting us, and helping us to smile at their antics out on the grass.
One bear, Jasper, has an extraordinary character. He welcomes new arrivals with the glee of a child, and still finds time to rough and tumble with the young bears in what we affectionately term a “bear bundle”.
For a bear crushed flat to the bottom of his cage for 15 years I find his charisma and kindness breathtaking.
Almost every time I walk past where he sleeps out in the enclosure I call his name and see his big “Mickey Mouse” ears prick up before he lifts his head and glances my way. As I open the door of his bear den, it’s not long before he wanders over for some treats, and gently licks peanut butter from my fingers.
Then there is Oliver, who is a very special bear rescued along with 9 other bears in April 2010 in Shangdong Province, China. They were all in a dreadful condition – many, including Oliver, were caged and had been wearing full metal jackets around their bodies which had kept dirty and painful latex catheters in place in the gall bladder and abdomen. Just before we arrived the farmer had ripped off the metal jackets and pulled out the catheters knowing that they were against regulations and that he would be in trouble with the authorities if this method of farming was discovered. However, it was obvious by the scars around the bears’ bodies – and by their moaning in pain – that the farmer had done this, and we were all disgusted.
On the way home, Oliver began panting, he was hot and refused to eat, and our vets Monica and Heather decided that he needed life saving surgery right there in the back of the truck. We found a local human hospital willing to help supply us with a tank of oxygen etc and the surgery commenced. After 4 hours a hideous metal coil was removed – along with his gall bladder and Oliver’s life was saved.
However, he still had many problems as a result of his past – including stunted limbs and a body grossly deformed from his time in the cage, suffering on two farms during the course of no less than 30 years.
To see him when we finally released him in his den, literally swaggering out into the enclosure – stretching his stiff old body high into the air to retrieve juicy tomatoes and ripe apples and pears from the tops of the hanging logs, was a sight not to be missed. He swam in the pool, lay in the grass enjoying the freedom of nature and every so often he glanced over as if to say “it’s pretty good here”, before wandering off again to retrieve another tasty treat. There are simply no words in the English dictionary that can adequately describe how my heart lurched with love and affection for a bear in his twilight years who was so much enjoying his freedom at last. The sun shone, the pool glistened and Oliver, our “broken bear”, smiled for China as his feet got wet.
Q: What is it that Animals Asia needs to continue its important work?
You can help us by please going on to the website and spreading the word about the bears and encouraging everyone to join Animals Asia. Much is there advising people to “stand up behind the people of China” who are now increasingly speaking out against bear farming – we become closer and closer to that day and need everyone’s help more than we can say.
Please write to your local Chinese Embassies – again we can provide polite sample letters showing that this is a request not just from people in the international community but from those in China now too.
Read article “Asian Black Bears continue to suffer their bile“.