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China's Moon Bears
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They are pulled off the flatbed truck, frightened and agitated, emaciated, sick, and violently angry, crushed in rusted metal cages the size of coffins.
Slow death from infection, agonizing pain, fear, and dementia-inducing boredom have been the sum of their lives. And now, a rough and bumpy ride on the roads of Sichuan Province to Chengdu, to a new fate that they fear will be worse than the last. What this misbegotten lot of Chinese moon bears does not yet know is that they have just arrived at their own peaceable kingdom. And their savior is Jill Robinson, an English rose with steel determination and the desire to liberate the bears from China's bear farms where they are "milked" daily for their precious bile through rusting metal tubes crudely implanted deep in their gall bladders.
Asiatic Black Bear, Ursus thibetanus, Chinese Moon Bear. Thus-named because of the yellow-gold crescent-shaped patch of fur on their chests, this beautiful species is listed under Appendix 1 of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, the most critical category. It is estimated that less than 25,000 remain in the wild, the result of extensive hunting and trapping to fuel the lucrative trade of their body parts-bones, brains, blood, paws and, most coveted of all, their gall bladders. For over 3,000 years, bear bile has been used in traditional Chinese medicine to cure a host of ills, from bone fractures, fever, and liver disease to headaches and sexual dysfunction. It is reported that bear bile can sell for a profitable $10 per teaspoon and, on the black market, for as much as $18,000 dollars for a whole gall bladder. Although it is illegal to export the bile or other bear parts, the trade continues to flourish.
In the 1980s, in an effort to protect moon bears from extinction, the Chinese government introduced the practice of bear farming, based on a concept first introduced in Korea, hoping to discourage poaching and trapping. Lucrative for the farmers themselves, this effort quickly proved to be misguided and led to the barbaric conditions Jill Robinson first encountered in 1993 when, as Asia consultant for the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), she investigated one of the farms.
The teeth of many of the bears had been cut back to the gums and their fingers amputated so farmers could more easily extract bile without risking injury. One cub, severely mentally disturbed, had been taken from his mother in the wild. Many of the bears had been in their cages for as long as 22 years and some, having grown too large for their cages, were all but fully encased. Worse yet were those like Jasper, who for years had lain cruelly crushed to the floor of his cage by a device designed to subdue the bears during milking, but which the farmers often neglected to ever lift again. Many more were found to be missing limbs. None had ever had free access to water-only what they could catch on their tongues during a perfunctory hosing down the farmers had given them once a day. The fruit they were given immediately upon arrival was a delicacy that most of them had never tasted.
"I wandered down a flight of stairs, having no idea what I would discover. To my shock and horror, I saw rows of bears imprisoned in rusting and filthy wire cages so small that they could neither stand nor turn round, and catheters protruding from their stomachs which were obviously infected. The misery in that dark room was overwhelming," she said, explaining that some of the bears had been imprisoned like this for more than 13 years, dying slowly of chronic infection. "As soon as the bears heard me they became agitated and I heard clicking vocalizations that I later learned expressed fear. They were obviously associating a human presence with that painful extraction of bile they were made to endure every day."
One quiet and less agitated bear stretched her paw towards Robinson. Without thinking, she reached out and held it for several moments, feeling the large paw rhythmically squeezing her fingers. "Had I been thinking clearly and known what I now know about bears, I never would have done such a thing," said Robinson, describing the size and strength of the paws as well as the saber-sharp claws. "They can be very aggressive and unpredictable. I truly believe this bear reached out to me for a purpose. It's a moment I will never forget."
Determined to put an end to the intense suffering of these intelligent and inquisitive animals, Robinson began actively campaigning to close down the bear farms, first in her capacity as consultant to IFAW, then establishing the AnimalsAsia Foundation, her own organization and the one that is now at the forefront of the rescue effort. With a recorded 10,000 bears on over 400 farms throughout China, it was a challenge that would have defeated most. Robinson, who had worked with Thames Television in London before moving to Hong Kong to join her commercial-pilot fiancé (now husband), was media savvy. Photos of the bears and the conditions under which they were kept appeared in Chinese and world news media. Most important, she worked unrelentingly to build relationships with government departments to negotiate an end to the farming.
In July 2000, after seven years of intense negotiation, Robinson and the AnimalsAsia Foundation signed a landmark agreement with The China Wildlife Conservation Association and the Sichuan Forestry Department, sanctioned by the Central Government Department in Beijing, to free 500 Chinese moon bears from the worst of the farms and move towards total elimination of bear farming. An even more momentous achievement for Robinson was that this agreement was the first in history between the Chinese government and an outside animal welfare organization.
But her work was only beginning. The bears would need a viable sanctuary to accommodate their numbers, and expensive veterinary care to undo the physical damage done to them to obtain their valuable bile juices. Bile also had been taken from some of the bears through a newer and presumed more humane "drip method" whereby holes had been opened in their abdomens allowing the bile to continuously ooze to the surface for collection. But both the drip method and primitive catheter method have resulted in deadly peritonitis and septicemia for many of the bears.
The first three bears arrived at Chengdu, the small rescue center constructed by the AnimalsAsia team. Robinson chose Chengdu because the Sichuan province was the location of many of the farms from which the bears would be released to her care. The rescue center, financed only by donations and whatever fund raising the AnimalsAsia Foundation can accomplish, is not nearly as large as it will need to become to accommodate all the bears that will eventually need to be sheltered there.
The bears arrived thin, dehydrated and sick, banging their heads violently against the bars of their claustrophobic cages in a response animal experts call "cage crazy," and lashing out angrily at their rescuers-all but a bear called Andrew, who seemed trusting from the start. Andrew was missing one of his front legs, proving that many moon bears, some only cubs, were still being wild-caught in traps. Embodying the importance of their mission, Andrew won a special place in the hearts of Robinson and rescue center staff. Veterinarian Gail Cochrane tranquilized the bears and prioritized them for surgery. Along with having to remove the corroded seven-inch catheters, she would have to clean agonizingly painful abscesses, remove pounds of fibrotic tissue, and repair abdominal hernias as large as soccer balls. Andrew's surgery alone took five hours.
Later, 60 more bears arrived at Chengdu.
Sadly, some of the bears were too weak or filled with infection to survive surgery. And some bears, after seeming to recover, died later of the dreaded septicemia and peritonitis. "Bears are so stoic and terrifically resilient and often show no outward signs that they've developed these infections," Robinson says. "If they are quiet and stop eating for more than 24 hours, we know that we have to put them under to check them out."
Once the most significant health issues are conquered at Chengdu, the bears are started on a physical therapy program, accomplished by tempting them with honey, jam, and other enticing moon bear treats-all placed just far enough out of reach that they have to move and stretch their atrophied muscles. When strong enough, they are given free rein in a larger grassy enclosure, many bears touch grass for the very first time in their lives. As they become accustomed to freedom of movement the bears again become playful, their once matted and filthy coats glossy and luxuriant. And a particular pleasure, Robinson says, is to see them lounging languidly in hanging beds in their specially designed dens, taking advantage of their new-found vertical freedom, a freedom that bears in the wild so enjoy.
Trying not to play favorites among the bears, a few, like Andrew and Jasper, have nonetheless become special to the staff at Chengdu. Another was Mouse, a placid, sweet old gentleman of a bear with swellings on both sides of his head that gave him a rodent-like appearance. "Bears normally eat very quickly," Robinson explains, "but Mouse would eat his beloved mango and digestive biscuits in such a slow and measured way, relishing every morsel." The day that Mouse seemed more quiet than usual, Robinson and Cochrane dreaded the inevitable. While he was under anesthesia, Cochrane found that the swellings were cancerous tumors. Mouse did not awaken from his surgery. Robinson recalls that even a news-hardened BBC crew, taping a segment on Chengdu for British television, was in tears.
Medical research done in the west has shown that bear bile does indeed have healing properties. The effective compound contained in the bile, ursodeoxycholic acid, or UDCA, may be effective in treating such neurological conditions as Huntington's disease, Parkinson's disease, and hemorrhagic strokes, says Dr. Clifford Steer, Professor of Medicine, Genetics, and Cell Biology at the University of Minnesota Medical School. UDCA is currently being used in this country to treat chronic liver disease, in the form of tauroursodeoxycholic acid, or TUDCA, which is derived from a source other than bear bile. Steer says, "There is nothing in bear bile that you can't reproduce," and that "[bear farming] sounds disturbing and would not be something I would condone. I feel other options can be considered."
Dr. Martin C. Carey, Professor of Medicine at Harvard University School of Medicine, and an expert on the synthesis of UDCA, says that the use of bear bile is Asia predates chemistry by 1,000 years, pointing out that it was even used in China to make marbleized paper. With such a long history and cultural belief in its uses, he is of the opinion that it will be difficult to dissuade many that, for people, the gall bladders of bears are not necessary to maintain optimum health. Carey's opinion of the bear farming industry is that it seems "pretty ghastly."
In spite of a report issued by the Chinese Association of Medicine and Philosophy that details herbal alternatives to treat conditions for which bear bile is often used, it seems that it is a tradition that may be difficult to eliminate, as Carey stated, because of the long-held faith in its efficacy.
Even now, bear bile can be found in shampoos and other personal care products, as well as wine and soda.
Traditional Chinese medicine has come under fire for using the parts of many endangered animals in its remedies, such as tiger bone and rhinoceros horn. But through the efforts of Robinson and AnimalAsia, many practitioners in China, England, and Australia have signed a pledge to use only remedies that are derived from sources other than animals in treatment of their patients. Dr. Hong Jin, acupuncturist and faculty director of the Oregon College of Oriental Medicine in Portland, Oregon, says that practitioners in the U.S. do not prescribe bear bile. She herself says that she prefers to use plant-based medicines and objects to the treatment of bears on China's farms. Dr. Jin, who received her medical degree from the Nanjing University of Traditional Chinese Medicine, does say, however, that bear bile may be found in some of the patent medicines (premixed remedies) found on the shelves of some shops in the U.S. that specialize in Chinese medicine.
With no funds supplied by the Chinese government, Robinson relies on charitable donations to raise the vast amounts of money needed to expand the sanctuary to accommodate all of the bears, and to keep up with mounting veterinary expenses. Among the clever and creative ways she has come up with to fund the project is to allow larger donors to name a bear as a premium for their donation. Her favorite is the donor who requested that his bear be named Bottom, so that he could "show all of his friends pictures of his bear Bottom." Nonetheless, it has been difficult to keep up with the tremendous amount of money needed to provide a safe haven for the moon bears. "Too often," she laments, "well-meaning people will hear about our work, and then send money to the larger animal organizations to try to help. But in fact, AnimalsAsia is the only organization actively rescuing these 500 bears."
Robinson, who in 1998 was made a Member of the British Empire in recognition of her work with the AnimalsAsia Foundation, now spends much of her time in Hong Kong to deal with fund raising and the administrative details of the sanctuary, as well as AnimalsAsia's other concerns, such as its "Dr. Dog" program, where dogs make therapeutic visits to patients in hospitals much like the Pets On Wheels programs in the U.S. Hoping to counteract the cruel dog-meat trade in China, Korea, and the Phillippines, Robinson initiated the Dr. Dog program to demonstrate that humans and dogs can have an emotional connection that is beneficial to both species.
Robinson commutes to Chengdu two or three times a month, but leaves the running of the sanctuary in the capable hands of project director Boris Chiao, sanctuary manager Bob Deng, and a small staff, including a full-time veterinary nurse. "We have a fabulous team," she says of Cochrane and her other colleagues. "We've stuck with each other for years. This is no place for egos-we just get on with the job and love it."
As of October 2002, 31 farms have been closed by the government, and no new bear farming licenses have been issued since 1994. So far Chengdu has received 75 confiscated bears, many of whom are now ready for the larger "bamboo forest" enclosure that has been designed for them to better approximate their natural habitat. But progress is not as rapid as Robinson and other bear advocates would like. And they are a long way from receiving the total 500 bears they expect.
Because there is no official government policy on closing the farms, and they are moving at such a cautious pace, she fears that officials who would prefer to see bear farming continue may begin to make themselves heard. In addition to China's bear farms, she says, there are as many as 5,000 bears being farmed in Vietnam, and 1,400 bears languishing on defunct farms in Korea.
The 2008 Olympic Games will be held in Beijing. Robinson and AnimalsAsia are working hard to see that bear farming is ended by that time-a time when China will have much of which to be proud to show the world and, she hopes, nothing of which to be ashamed.
Patricia Howard is a freelance writer and actor living in the Washington, D.C., area. She is the former associate editor of Sea Power Magazine, and writes on medical, science, cultural, and animal topics.
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