A day in the sun for moon bears

World Reports

In a bamboo forest along the Pi River, Jill Robinson holds out a finger dipped in honey. The sun peeks through the canopy, illuminating a rusty cage. Tentatively, a tongue reaches through the bars. “Andrew,” an Asiatic black bear, also known as a “moon bear” for the crescent of plush golden fur around his neck, licks the sweet substance from Robinson’s finger. It is his first taste of kindness in 20 years.

At a recent talk in San Anselmo, California, Robinson, a petite, soft-spoken British woman, and the director of Animals Asia Foundation (AAF), the non-profit she founded in 1998, told the story of Andrew.

Andrew now lives at the Moon Bear Rescue Center in southeastern China, a sanctuary run by AAF. Like most moon bears, Andrew stands six feet tall on his hind legs. But he lived most of his twenty years on a “bear farm,” lying on his belly in a three-foot-wide by three-foot-high by six-foot-long cage. In it, he could neither change positions nor have free access to water.

Like many of the bears AAF has rescued, Andrew was snared in the wild as a cub. One of his legs was mangled in a trap; the farmer probably chopped off what remained. Immediately after he was captured, Andrew was taken to a grim concrete room filled with rows of tiny elevated iron cages containing other moon bears. In this room he underwent an operation in which a seven-inch catheter was inserted into his gallbladder. Then, from beneath his cage, the bear farmers would “milk” bile from his gallbladder twice a day in a crude and painful procedure. In addition to being confined in tiny cages, bears are sometimes further immobilized in metal jackets, torso-squeezing devices like corsets, or in “crush” cages to keep them from protesting during the milking. In addition to the hundreds of bear farms operating in China, there are many more in North and South Vietnam and Korea.

The products of bear farms are dry bile powder and Chinese medicines used to treat ailments like high fevers, hemorrhoids, liver problems, and sore eyes. The amount of bile powder obtained from one bear per year – from 365 days of torture – is only about two kilograms, the size of a small bag of rice. Although bear bile has been used for thousands of years in traditional Chinese medicine, the practice of “bear farming” is a relatively recent phenomenon. Traditionally, moon bears – and other bears – were killed for their gallbladders. But in the early 1980s, North Korean scientists figured out a way to obtain the desirable products of this organ without killing the animal. By taking cubs from the wild and extracting their bile while keeping them alive, they could produce a continual flow of liquid gold. A few years later, China began bear farming, the government encouraging the practice in a misguided attempt to conserve the wild population. By the early 1990s, there were almost 500 bear farms operating in China, containing over 10,000 bears. Meanwhile, illegal poaching of wild bears continued; today, the Chinese government estimates that less than 15,000 moon bears remain in the wild.

In 1993, things began to look up somewhat for moon bears in China when Robinson, who had been working there as a consultant for the International Fund for Animal Welfare for over a decade, was taken to a bear farm.

“I broke away from the group watching the breeding bears outside in a pit and found some steps leading downstairs into a basement,” she recalled. “As my eyes became accustomed to the darkness, I heard some strange ‘popping’ vocalizations in the background. The closer I crept to the noises, the louder and more frantic the sounds became. I realized then with shame that the very first lesson I would learn from this intelligent, endangered species was the lesson of fear, and that the presence of a human being meant only pain to these animals. Caged, declawed, and defanged, with metal catheters in their bellies, they had become nothing more than machines.”

Robinson wandered around the dark room, numb and in shock at the medieval scene. What happened next would change her life.

“I felt something gently touch my shoulder,” she explained. “I spun around, coming face to face with a female bear who had stretched her paw through the bars of her cage. Probably foolishly in retrospect, I took her offered paw. Yet, rather than pulling my arm from its socket as she had every right to do, this powerful bear simply squeezed my fingers, and our eyes connected.”

Robinson named the bear Hong (“bear” in Cantonese), and while she never managed to save her, that moment was the beginning of Robinson’s fight to free all farmed bears. Headquartered in Hong Kong, AAF works on many other animal- welfare related issues in Asia, such as live animal markets. But its main focus these days is to end bear farming in China by 2008. Robinson says the strategy behind this goal is to call attention to the pride and status of China during Beijing’s Olympic Games while promoting the country as the leader in ending bear farming in Asia. AAF is making progress. In July 2000, the China Wildlife Conservation Association and the Sichuan Forestry Department signed an agreement with AAF to free 500 bears in Sichuan Province and to work toward eliminating all bear farms.

That agreement was the first ever to be signed between the Chinese government and an outside animal welfare organization. Says Robinson, “It became clear from the outset that neither the government nor its people could be ‘bullied’ into reversing a practice which had been started with obvious good intent—however cruel and unrealistic it was eventually found to be. We needed to find solutions—the hardest task of all—but ones that proved we could work sensitively with a foreign culture.” AAF is now working with the Chinese government to close bear farms. When a farm is closed, the government turns its license over to AAF, and the farmers are compensated and given assistance finding new employment. Yet Robinson has a Herculean task ahead of her. Although the government has promised not to issue any additional licenses, 7,000 bears remain on farms. To date, AAF has been able to rescue 130 bears. Robinson hopes they will save another 100 this year.

AAF is also working to promote the use of the less expensive synthetic and herbal alternatives to bear bile. The active ingredient in bear bile is ursodeoxycholic acid (UDCA), but synthetic UDCA is now widely used, especially in the West, primarily to break down gallstones. (Synthetic UDCA is also being tested in the treatment of more serious problems such as Parkinson’s disease, Huntington’s disease, and possibly Alzheimer’s.) Due to the availability of synthetic UDCA, there is now a surplus of bear bile in Asia. This means that the bile from the tortured bears ends up in luxury items like cosmetics and wine.

Says Professor Liu Zhen Cai, one of China’s most respected traditional medicine doctors, “Today, we have over 50 herbal alternatives and synthetic medicines that have the same efficacy as bear bile. There is no need for bears to suffer any longer.” Dr. Andy Rader, a traditional Chinese medicine practitioner in Marin County, California, echoes Zhen Cai’s opinion. “I don’t use bear bile and I don’t know of anyone who does,” says Rader. “The state acupuncture associations promote ethical and environmentally sound use of Chinese medicines.”

Bears continue to arrive at the Moon Bear Rescue Center in Chengdu, often in deplorable condition. Moon bears are intelligent, curious creatures who need lots of mental stimulation, says Robinson. Life in such extreme captivity has caused some of them to bang their heads or wear down their teeth on the cage bars, even to chew at their own legs in frustration. Some of the bears weigh less than half what a healthy bear should weigh. At least 30 percent of the wild-caught bears are missing a limb or two. Some have had their canine teeth sawed off or the tips of their paws cut off, to take away their defenses and make them easier to “milk.”

But as soon as the bears arrive at the center, their lives take a turn for the better. They are immediately given a light shower of water through their cage bars. Often severely dehydrated, the bears lap at the water eagerly. Rescue center employees also offer them bowls of honey, fruit, and other sweet treats. Once the bears are rehydrated and sedated, an ultrasound exam is performed to help the vets determine the bears’ internal injuries. Often, the animals have tumors, mutilated gallbladders, hernias, abscesses, or equipment left behind from previous botched surgeries. Surgery is then performed to remove their catheters and repair their wounds. Occasionally, a bear is so badly injured it must be euthanized.

After the bears have recovered, several weeks or even months later depending on their injuries, they can begin to live lives free of pain and confinement. The bears cannot be released. Many lack limbs; most never learned the skills they need to survive in the wild, having been captured as cubs. But at the sanctuary they can socialize with other bears, swim in a pool, climb into a bamboo basket, swing in a hammock, follow a fruit and honey trail, or crawl through a tunnel. They are given nutritious, tasty food for the first time: cereal, meat protein, veggies, fruit, and rice. They especially enjoy eating giant “Popsicles” – one-foot-square blocks of ice containing chunks of fruit and vegetables – which keep them happily occupied for over an hour at a time. For the first time in many of their lives, they have free access to water.

Running a bear sanctuary isn’t cheap. To rescue and provide medical care for a bear for three years costs approximately $9,600. The 27-acre site, which can hold no more than 350 bears, will cost $3 million to complete. By comparison, the price tag for a small exhibit being planned for the Hong Kong Botanic Gardens to display two jaguars will be almost $1 million; the new Rain Forest exhibit at the Bronx Zoo cost $43 million. Monthly operating costs for the rescue center are approximately $57,000, including staffing, bear food, enrichment activities, rent (AAF has a twenty-year lease), veterinary supplies, repairs, transport, communications, and office costs. Funded primarily through individual donations from throughout the world, AAF’s lowest donor base is also the wealthiest: the US. Robinson thinks this may be because many Americans find it hard to believe that something as barbaric as bear farming is still taking place.

Robinson won’t rest until she’s done her best to help the 7,000 bears that remain on farms. AAF is exploring the possibility of acquiring more farmland surrounding the sanctuary, which would offer space for several hundred more rescued bears. Although the sanctuary will not officially open to the public until 2005, small private tours are currently given, and AAF is building an educational center. Once it is open, visitors will learn about the plight of the bears and alternatives to bear bile. Some of the herbal replacements are being grown on site. Meanwhile, the rescue center has provided local benefits: jobs for about 50 people at the center itself, as well as at new shops that have started up nearby, and for residents of the area who grow food for the center’s bears and workers.

Robinson realizes that she probably won’t be able to save every moon bear. Some will die before ever seeing the light of day. Others are so weak they will perish on their journey to the center. She hopes that bears like Hong did not die in vain but will continue to inspire the battle to save living bears. “Each bear has a story to tell,” says Robinson. “We can learn from them and use them to bring bear farming to an end.”

At Robinson’s talk in San Anselmo, one audience member wondered whether it wouldn’t be “more practical and cheaper” to euthanize all of the farmed bears. Robinson’s response? “These bears have been through hell and back. The fact that they recover so surprisingly well, have a love of life which is obvious to see, and actually forgive the species that has caused them so much suffering, moves all of us deeply. I believe they have earned their day in the sun.”

Lisa Owens-Viani is an environmental writer living in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is Senior Editor of Terrain magazine, terrainmagazine.org.

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