If we grant bears any modicum of intelligence or emotional experience, if we grant them the capacity to suffer pain or mental anguish, then bear bile farming – which houses bears in tiny cages for the breadth of their life in order to repeatedly extract their bile – poses a whole slew of ethical questions.
Indeed, for decades activists have been campaigning to stop the trade, which extracts bear bile for use in Chinese medicine.
But now, the industry that profits from it may succeed in doing it for them. Last year, Kaibao Pharmaceuticals, which supplies around half of the bear bile consumed in China, said it plans to develop a synthetic alternative to the popular curative using government funding.
“If the largest producer of bear bile is now looking into a synthetic alternative to their product, this can only be a good thing for the bears on the farms,” said Jill Robinson, the head of Animals Asia, a group that has been fighting bear farming in Asia for more than 15 years.
In a brief statement, Kaibao announced it was using poultry bile and “biotransformation technology” to create a substance chemically similar to bear bile, but without the bear in it. It intends to spend 12m yuan (£1.3m)of its own cash on developing the substance. In addition, Kaibao won a 5.3m yuan (£570,000) subsidy from China’s government and another 6 million yuan (£650,000) from the regional government. If successful, Kaibao would own the intellectual rights to the new poultry-based, but bear-like, bile.
Thousands of moon bears lie in constant pain and anguish in cages that are no bigger than coffins.
“This is an opportunity for practitioners and consumers to make a shift from using threatened species, to legal and sustainable alternatives, illustrating the [Traditional Chinese Medicine’s] community’s commitment to conservation of wildlife and legal trade,” said Chris Shepherd, a bear bile trade expert and the conservation group, Traffic’s regional director of Southeast Asia.
“The shift, however, must come from within this community,” he added.
The most important component of bear bile is ursodeoxycholic acid, which has been shown in research to be effective against some ailments, such as select liver diseases. Yet, traditional practitioners prescribe bear bile for much more, including everything from a sore throat to epilepsy.
There are two ways to acquire the bile today: either kill a bear in the wild and cut out its gall bladder or in the case of the so-called bear bile farms (though factories may be a more apt word) repeatedly drain the gall bladders of captive animals.
Inside the bear bile factory
Robinson, who has visited a number of bear bile facilities, describes them as a house of horrors.
“[Bears] are constantly thirsty and hungry, get little or no veterinary care and essentially are tortured their whole lives,” she said. “Today… thousands of moon bears lie in constant pain and anguish in cages that are no bigger than coffins. A number of crude and brutal methods are used to extract their bile – rusting catheters, barbaric full-metal jackets with neck spikes, medicinal pumps and open, infected holes drilled into their bellies.”
The conditions are indeed alarming, according to many who follow the trade. Bears are kept in “crush cages,” which are deliberately too small for animals to stand or move much. In order to extract the bile – often daily – workers make permanent holes or fistula into the bear’s gall bladder. The bile is extracted, or ‘milked’ in the industry nomenclature, via metal tubes or other methods. Conditions are often so unsanitary, and bears so sick, that experts have raised public health concern about consuming bile from these places.
“Some bears are put into cages as cubs and never released,” said Robinson adding that “most farmed bears are starved, dehydrated and suffer from multiple diseases and malignant tumours that ultimately kill them.”
If the bears live long enough – and life-spans are short here – they can be bile milked for decades. However, usually after 10 to 20 years, bears stop producing enough to pay for their room and board. They are then commonly killed and their body parts sold.
Animal rights activists contend that these conditions cause massive psychological harm to the bears. In one rumored incident, a mother bear reportedly broke out of her cage while her cub was being milked. Reaching the cub, the mother suffocated it to death. Then the mother bear bashed her head against a wall until she perished. Some animal rights activists called it a murder-suicide, though the incident has never been substantiated.
Other observers have reported bears refusing to eat until they simply wasted away and died.
Still, not everyone views bear bile farming as cruel.
“The process of extracting bear bile is like turning on a tap: natural, easy and without pain. 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!” said Fang Shuting the head of the Chinese Association of Traditional Chinese Medicine in 2012.
Shuting’s comments were in defence of another bear bile company’s, Guizhentang Pharmaceutical, plans to go public on the Hong Kong stock exchange. By going public, Guizhentang hoped to triple its number of captive bears from 400 to 1,200.
But the company’s proposal was met with a passionate, grassroots campaign by Chinese activists that eventually derailed the listing, while Shuting’s comments were derided in social media and condemned by bear bile experts.
In all, experts estimate that there are at least 12,000 bears in bear bile facilities today. The bulk of the bears are housed in China, though Vietnam, Laos, Burma, South Korea also sport facilities. While there is significant demand for bear bile in China, it is also sold across Southeast Asia as far south as Malaysian Borneo.
Despite what it has become, the origins of bear farming was, at least rhetorically, in part to save wild bears. The Chinese have been consuming bear bile for over a thousand years. But before the rise of these farms, practitioners simply went into the woods, killed a bear, and then removed its gall bladder with the lucrative bile inside.
Over the centuries, not surprisingly, bears began to vanish. It’s a similar story to many other animals targeted by the Chinese medicine trade, such as tigers, pangolins, Sumatran and Javan rhinos, Asian turtles, and more. Like bears, these have all faced relentless hunting for purported curatives. This over-hunting, combined with massive habitat loss, has led to the complete destruction of some populations and declines in others.
We almost have to take on a detective role, working through the injuries and wounds on the bears’ bodies
The main target of the bear bile trade – the Asian black bear (Ursus thibetanus) also known as the moon bear – is today listed as vulnerable by the IUCN Red List. Little is known about its total population, although as few as 25,000 may survive in the wild and it has certainly vanished from much of its former range and is in decline where it persists. The trade, however, has also targeted the sun bear (Helarctos malayanus) – also vulnerable – and various subspecies of brown bear.
But solely from a conservation perspective – setting aside ethical concerns – the start of bear bile farms in the 1980s was initially hoped to relieve some pressure on wild bears. The idea was if bear farms raised a self-sustaining population of productive animals than poachers would have little impetus to capture or kill bears in the wild.
But experts say that hasn’t happened and there are a number of reasons why. For one thing, breeding bears isn’t cheap, and in most cases it’s probably still less expensive and easier to steal bears from the wild to repopulate farms with high turnover. For another, experts believe that more bear bile on the market has pushed practitioners to prescribe the substance more freely and for a broader array of ailments, many not connected to traditional use. Finally, there are those consumers that appear to prefer bear bile from wild animals, either viewing it as more authentic or concerned about the sanitary conditions – or lack thereof – on bear farms.
Robinson says the proof that bear farms are still stealing animals from the wild is as easy as looking at their mangled charges.
“Approximately 30% of rescued bears at our sanctuary in Chengdu are missing limbs or have obvious snare or trap wounds indicating that they were wild caught,” she said, adding that wild-caught bears are often more aggressive as well.
Yet, the paucity of oversight from the government – and the fact that much of the trade occurs underground – means it’s up to NGOs to make guesses.
“We almost have to take on a detective role, working through the injuries and wounds on the bears’ bodies and piecing the evidence together to continue the case against the industry,” Robinson added.
She said some bear facilities certainly do breed animals – and parade the cubs around to prove it – but “we believe that their breeding is not as successful as they would maintain, and it is clearly easier and cheaper to bring in wild caught bears than spend funds on denning pens and the extra food the females require during the breeding season.”
The fact that bear farms have not mitigated threats in the wild is outlined by a 2012 International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) resolution calling for a phasing out of bear farms, including shuttering any illegal facilities and not establishing new ones. The motion said evidence was “lacking” that bear farms had lessened killing of wild bears.
Given this, a paper in Oryx last year suggested that we rename bear farms – which gives the sense of domesticated bears breeding freely – to “bile extraction facilities”.
Still, the Chinese government has recently challenged the IUCN resolution, according to Shepherd, claiming that the industry is capable of providing bear bile without resorting to wild bear capture or poaching.
This is a view echoed by Fang Shunting, “bear farming is the best way to protect wild bears. Given the market demand, how could we prevent wild bear hunting?”
Will traditional doctors get on board?
Now, let’s assume Kaibao Pharmaceuticals is successful in developing a synthetic alternative to bear bile, using poultry. Let’s also assume the company – which brings in more than $50m a year in net sales – aggressively pushes the alternative. The big question, according to Traffic’s Shepherd, is will traditional doctors accept that synthetic bear bile – made from poultry – is just as good as the real thing?
Convincing practitioners may prove quite difficult. For one thing, there are already a slew of alternatives available, yet bear bile remains in high demand. Indeed, ursodeoxycholic acid – the most important component of bear bile – has already been synthetically reproduced in the US and prescribed for very specific diseases.
“There are more than 50 herbal [and] legal alternatives that we would also strongly encourage practitioners and retailers to recommend to consumers,” said Shepherd. “If practitioners moves towards these alternatives, consumers would follow.”
So why would Kaibao’s synthetic alternative make any difference? Experts are cautiously hopeful because this version would come from one of the biggest sellers of bear bile today. Unlike Western synthetic versions, it would also be home grown. According to Shepherd, though, the most important thing for Kaibao is to convince traditional doctors.
“The key is the practitioners… people listen to, and trust, their doctor,” he said.
To this end, Animals Asia has long been asking practitioners to stop prescribing bear bile in a campaign they call Healing Without Harm.
“To date thousands of doctors have joined us in pledging never to use or prescribe bear bile,” noted Robinson.
What do animals experience? Can we really know if the bears in these facilities suffer?
Of course, one of the ironies of Kaibao’s announcement is that their synthetic bear bile would still come from an animal. Although the company did not respond to repeated inquiries, it appears from their statement that they would likely be sourced from already-farmed poultry.
“This remains an ethical dilemma and the debate surrounding the use of all animal products continues and remains entirely worthwhile,” said Robinson. But, she added, “from the point of view of ending bear bile farming, and drastically reducing suffering of animals caged and mutilated for anything up to 30 years of their lives, this is a huge step.”
In the meantime, more than 10,000 bears remain in these facilities where Robinson says they “suffer terribly”. But that brings us back to our first question. What do animals experience? Can we really know if the bears in these facilities suffer or are they “without pain” as Shuting argues?
“Bears, like us, are warm bloodied mammals with a central nervous system and pain receptors, indicating that they deserve the benefit of doubt, and indeed feel pain,” said Robinson.
Indeed, recent research has found that more animals experience suffering – or negative stimuli – than long believed. For centuries, scientists and philosophers have debated whether animals are generally automatons – driven solely by instinct and lacking thought or emotion – rather than distinct individuals with personalities and a rich emotional life. But the famous discoveries that chimps use tools, whales sing, and crows solve problems has largely crushed the automaton argument.
Recent research has even revealed that invertebrates – let alone mammals, birds, reptiles, etc – undergo suffering and have some level of what we call intelligence. For example, scientists have found that crustaceans – such as lobsters – feel pain and may even experience anxiety; wasps maintain long-term memory; bees are capable of counting; and even cockroaches have personalities.
Unlike these invertebrates, though, people have historically viewed bears as particularly clever and sensitive animals. For centuries, people have trained bears as entertainment. Now largely viewed as cruel, such training proved that these big mammals could learn new tasks quickly. Despite such displays of cleverness – and the fact that bears sport the largest brains relative to body size of any carnivore (bigger than your pet dog) – there has been surprisingly little research on bear intelligence.
One of the few studies came out last year when researchers found that bears could “count”. Researchers trained American black bears to select groupings of dots based on which was bigger or smaller. The bears performed as well in the study as primates. In 2012, another researcher documented a wild brown bear carefully selecting barnacle-covered rocks to scratch itself, possible evidence of tool use.
“[Bear] intelligence is often said to be equal to that of a dolphin or a three-year-old child. But I feel that this description really doesn’t do justice to their individuality, and intelligence that we have yet to properly define,” said Robinson, who points to her years of experience working with hundreds of rescued bears at Animals Asia facilities.
“They learn very quickly and work things through. They have pre-emptive and anticipatory behaviour that allows them to improve or benefit their own lives,” she said, noting that bears are particularly choosy about making comfortable beds – maybe Goldilocks was based on real observation – and that her rescued bears quickly learn to sleep during employees’ lunch break because “this is a quiet time at the sanctuaries and that little happens… just before our team return to work, the bears will start to rouse too.”
Robinson also said that rescued bears’ behaviour clearly changes over time. In the beginning, the bears shrink away as people approach and even moan aloud – anticipating that they will be harmed, according to Robinson, as they were in the bile factories – or become aggressive. But after months in the sanctuary, bears become more relaxed, more social, and maybe even, as one could describe it, psychologically sane.
“Bears that previously exploded in anger at the mere presence of a human are calm and trusting, and slowly they comprehend that the approach of our staff is a positive addition to their lives,” Robinson said, adding they are “no longer violently stereotypic, or aggressive”.
Animals Asia’s two sanctuaries – one in China and one in Vietnam – now houses around 500 bears, all rescued from bear bile facilities. If Kaibao synthetic alternative works, though, Animals Asia may have to take on the care of many more bears, though it doesn’t seem they would mind.
“[Rescued bears] ultimately prove to be fun-loving, trusting and forgiving of the species that caused them indescribable pain,” noted Robinson.
But can bears forgive? Are they capable of granting absolution – and even if they are would they really choose to forgive us? Perhaps we may never know, but either way it may well be that we need it.
This article was first published by the Guardian on 09 Apr 2015.