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Rescuing China’s Bears From Bile Farms, One by One

Some had wounded faces and bloodied paws. Some were angry after years of mistreatment. But six Asiatic black bears now have a chance at a life of dignity after being rescued on Wednesday from a Chinese bile farm by Animals Asia, an animal rights group, and the Chinese government’s State Forestry agency.
January 15, 2013 Updated: July 12, 2022

The bear rescue will continue for a few days as the animals are settled into their new home at a shelter outside Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, which now houses nearly 150 bears, You can follow it on Animals Asia’s Twitter feed with the hashtag #newyearrescue. Today’s story is a happy one, though it’s part of the bigger, sadder picture of how thousands of bears are “farmed” for their bile here in China, often in excruciatingly painful conditions. Some are caged as cubs, and grow up crooked; physical injury and emotional trauma is the norm. Rendezvous readers have debated passionately about bear bile farming before. It’s common in China and Vietnam, where it is illegal. While the Chinese government is taking action against some bear farms, it’s not illegal here if farms have licenses for it. About 10,000 bears are believed to be caged for their bile in China and a couple thousand in Vietnam. It’s a lucrative trade, with bile prized by the Chinese traditional medicine industry for a range of cures. As my former colleague, Mark McDonald, summed it up: “Bear bile is prized in traditional Chinese medicine for its alleged ability to relieve muscle aches, joint pains, fever, migraines and hangovers, as well as being a curative for impotence, gallstones, cirrhosis, even cancer. Synthetic compounds are just as effective for many of these ailments, but many Asians, especially Chinese and Vietnamese men of a certain age, favor fresh bile.” Your consensus, readers, was that it’s a horrific practice, despite arguments made by the Chinese traditional medicine industry that bile farming is “humane,” as Fang Shuting, the head of the Chinese Association of Traditional Chinese Medicine, said: “The process of extracting bear bile is like turning on a tap: natural, easy and without pain,’’ Mr. Fang said. “After they’re done, the bears can even play happily outside. I don’t think there’s anything out of the ordinary! It might even be a very comfortable process!”As Mark wrote: “Wildlife biologists vehemently disagree, saying the needle sticks, catheterization and repeated draining of the gall bladder creates infections and leakage, which can lead to peritonitis and septicemia. ‘An excruciating death,’ said one scientist.” Revulsion is growing among ordinary Chinese, too. “I don’t believe it at all that extracting bile is as easy and comfortable as Fang said. Why doesn’t he extract the bile from his body in the same way to prove it?” one wrote on Sina Weibo, the microblog site, Mark reported. Here are the pictures. Here’s what a journalist who witnessed a bear arriving at the rescue wrote: “The Asiatic black bear gave a deep growl and struggled in a rusty cage only just bigger than her giant body, as rescue workers from the Animals Asia bear sanctuary fed her fruit to soothe her shattered nerves, and examined her body for signs of sores or bleeding.” (Full disclosure — this reporter is my husband, Clifford Coonan, the Irish Times China correspondent.) Jill Robinson, the founder of Animals Asia, was there, organizing and watching. Around the world, on Twitter and through video, people were watching, too. Here’s a tweet from the actor Peter Egan, of “Downton Abbey” and “A Perfect Spy” fame, and an animal rights supporter. As a member of Animals Asia wrote in an email to Rendezvous: watching the bears arrive “was exciting and sad in equal measure.” Exciting because it was the start of a new life for six; sad, because they need treatment and help, and because there are so many more out there.


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