Across China and Vietnam, thousands of endangered bears live locked up behind bars, where ‘farmers’ regularly drain their gall bladders for a prized liquid.
Originally published in onEarth.
TWO ENORMOUS HIND PAWS, one wrapped in a purple blood-pressure cuff, stick out from the edge of an operating table. A veterinarian presses a stethoscope to the patient’s chest. Nearby, Jill Robinson helps prepare for the day’s surgery: shaving fur, clipping nails, extracting blood for lab tests. She inspects the patient’s teeth and ears. Then she pauses. Robinson leans over and inhales deeply, for a moment allowing the animal’s earthy scent to distract her. “Bear paws,” she says, “are lucky to smell.”
Today’s patient is named Monkey. She’s a 216-pound moon bear—an endangered species named for the cream-colored crescents that mark its members’ black chests. Monkey is small but long-legged, with the biggest Mickey Mouse ears Robinson has ever seen. Head tilted back, she will breathe through an orange tube until her surgery is complete and her chest cavity sewn back together seven hours from now.
As Robinson darts around the surgical suite, she thinks back to the 2,800-mile journey to rescue Monkey and nine other bears. The animals came from a farm in China’s Shandong Province, where they’d lived in small rusted cages and wore heavy armored jackets designed to restrict their movements. Metal hooks and rings held in place permanent latex catheters. The medieval-looking equipment was used to extract the bears’ bile, which is used in Traditional Chinese Medicine and sometimes finds its way illegally to the United States. Robinson, the 53-year-old founder and CEO of the non-profit Animals Asia Foundation, has worked for 18 years to end bile farming, a practice that many traditional-medicine practitioners call cruel and unneeded.
Since 2000, Robinson’s foundation has negotiated the closure of 43 Chinese bile farms and the release of 277 bears. It learns about the farms from government officials and the public. The damaged creatures cannot survive in the wild, so Animals Asia has set up a bamboo-shaded sanctuary on 33 acres near Chengdu, in Sichuan Province. Here, they have access to grassy enclosures equipped with hammocks, wading pools, and climbing bars. They enjoy fresh fruits and vegetables, quality medical care, and the company of one another. The foundation runs a second sanctuary in Vietnam, where it has rescued 90 bears.
But before Monkey can relax with the others, she must first undergo several medical procedures. Today, veterinarian Monica Bando will remove the bear’s gall bladder, ruined after years of bile extraction. Bando will also look for embedded hardware, along with signs of liver cancer, believed to be a product of the cascading inflammatory responses to a lifetime of physical assaults. “She’s not out of the woods,” says Robinson, sounding like an anxious mom.
As Bando gets ready to lay down the surgical drape, Robinson picks up a clipboard with Monkey’s medical record. “Small thin bear,” it says. “Clearly had metal jacket on.” Monkey has joint problems and a hernia, and her teeth are ground down from chewing nervously on the bars of her farm cage. The chart’s first page chronicles a multitude of chest injuries, particularly around the catheter site. “They have a whole storyboard of pain,” Robinson says.
ROBINSON WAS WORKING FOR the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) in Hong Kong when she received a call from a journalist friend in 1993. “My God, I’ve just been to one of these horrendous bear farms,” she recalls him saying. “Jill, you have to go.” Robinson—a British-born animal lover whose dreams of veterinary school were dashed when she failed chemistry and physics—knew nothing about moon bears (also called Asiatic black bears) and little about bile farming. But she traveled to China’s Guangdong Province and tagged along on a farm tour, sanitized for tourists. She watched as the farmers showed off a pit containing about 20 breeding bears and encouraged visitors to tease the hungry creatures by dangling apples from a fishing line.
As the others were ushered into a bile shop, Robinson broke away and slipped downstairs into a dark basement where the bile bears, some of them skeletally thin, lived inside foul-smelling cages. “I could see shadows inside, and I could hear popping vocalizations,” she says. “The closer I got to the cages, the louder and more frantic these vocalizations became. I realized that my presence was causing them anxiety that something horrible was going to happen.” The memory of that day still evokes tears.
“When I got close to the cage, I could see exactly why they were afraid,” she continues. “They were in an awful, awful state. Some of them had grown into the cage bars. They had scars running the length of their bodies. They had had their teeth cut back to gum level. Some of them had missing paws from being caught illegally in the wild in leg-hold traps. And all of them were out of their heads with fear.”
Before that visit, nothing had infuriated Robinson so profoundly. IFAW sent her photos around the world, sparking outrage from the media and the public. Robinson contacted Chinese government officials, who agreed to meet with her. And she set out to educate herself about bile, bear farms, and Traditional Chinese Medicine.
Bear farming, Robinson learned, developed in the 1980s as a way to save wild populations that were being decimated for their gall bladders. The idea was that, if a limited number of bears were held captive for bile extraction, hunting would end. (It didn’t.) But bear bile has appeared in the Chinese pharmacopeia for 1,350 years, used as an antidote to inflammation, fever, and convulsion. Western medicine has used a synthetic form of its active ingredient, ursodeoxycholic acid (urso), for several decades to dissolve gallstones and treat biliary cirrhosis, a liver disease. Research led by Clifford Steer, a professor of medicine at the University of Minnesota, and confirmed by scientists at other universities, suggests that synthetic urso also helps prevent cell death, making it valuable for patients suffering from stroke, heart attack, and neurodegenerative conditions like Lou Gehrig’s disease. “This is one of the greatest drugs ever created,” says Steer.
A handful of pharmaceutical companies produce commercial urso, which is created from another acid found in cattle bile obtained from slaughterhouses. The manufacturers say no bears are used at all, and Steer says the synthetic version has no side effects. Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioners in Vietnam have reported severe and occasionally fatal toxic reactions to bile among their patients.
In parts of Asia, bear bile is widely believed to have magical curative properties, and some defenders say there are no alternatives. “Its various effects cannot be substituted by other medicine completely,” Wang Wei, deputy director of China’s Department of Wildlife Conservation, said at a 2006 press conference. But many practitioners of Traditional Chinese Medicine say bear bile is unnecessary. Fifty-four plants can serve as substitutes, according to a 1994 report commissioned by IFAW and produced by the Hong Kong–based Association of Chinese Medicine and a local green group called EarthCare Society. “Other options can still help your medical conditions without making bears suffer,” says Lixin Huang, president of the American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine.
Still, the market flourishes. The going price in China is $600 per kilogram, and that figure can skyrocket when the bile is sold in small “presentation packs,” according to Animals Asia. A three-gram box in China sells for 60 to 80 dollars, or more than $20,000 per kilogram. Surplus bile finds its way into non-medicinal goods like wine and toothpaste, which are touted for their medicinal properties. Though it’s unlawful to import Asiatic black bear parts and viscera into the United States for commercial purposes, in 2009 the World Society for the Protection of Animals found bile for sale in shops in Boston, New York, Chicago, Seattle, and San Francisco. Federal officials continue to intercept bile en route from China to the United States.
THE BELL RINGS AT 9 A.M. at Animals Asia’s Chengdu sanctuary. The doors separating the moon bears’ indoor dens from their grassy enclosures open at once. The creatures lope into the sunshine in search of treats: For the past hour, sanctuary employees have been hiding fresh goodies—apples, tomatoes, cabbages, carrots—inside tractor tires, on top of playground equipment, and in niches drilled into wooden logs.
The animals here get to do many of the things they were denied on the bile farms. They wrestle. They sunbathe. They scuffle and climb and stand under sprinklers. The curious ones walk up to the fence line to check out their human visitors. Robinson points to a small, fluffy female named Freedom, splashing in a wading pool with several companions. It takes a moment to notice that, because she was trapped illegally, she has no front paws. “Now Freedom, about three springs ago, I caught her flirting with five boyfriends in fifteen minutes,” Robinson recounts. “She was going for it around this enclosure. And the boys were having a great time with her. So it’s no impediment to have both her front paws missing. Look at how she’s flirting with Douglas right now. Look at this!”
The 162 bears living here look so contented that it’s hard to imagine how deep their suffering once went, or that others arrived so sick that they died before feeling grass underpaw. What is evident is the intensity of everyone’s commitment, with Robinson setting the tone.
“I don’t think she ever has any down time,” says Bando, the veterinarian. “Jill will take the squeegee mop out of my hand and say, ‘Oh no, you have more important things to do here. Let me do this.’ And she will be actually mopping the corridors of the hospital.”
It took Robinson’s intensity to create this sanctuary. After her initial farm visit in 1993, she spent years building guanxi—good relations—with Chinese officials. In one early success, the government agreed in 1995 to close down the first farm she had visited and transfer the nine surviving bears to a small sanctuary built by her then-employer, IFAW. “It was one of the best days in my life,” she says of those bears’ arrival. “I realized this window was opening up for something very expansive in the future.”
She founded Animals Asia Foundation in 1998. Its first victory came two years later, when China signed an agreement promising to liberate 500 bears from the country’s worst farms and work toward shutting down the industry. (The foundation compensates farmers so they can make the transition to more humane work like fish farming, and in exchange the farmers relinquish their licenses to keep bears.) At the same time, Hong Kong businessman Frank Pong, the father of a friend of Robinson’s, donated $1 million to build Animals Asia’s Chengdu sanctuary for the released bears.
From the start, Robinson envisioned the sanctuary as more than an ursine retirement center. Every time a bear needs medical care, the veterinarians save the evidence of pathology: tumors and hernias, inflamed organs, embedded objects, and contaminated bile. They publish their findings in the veterinary press and present them at conferences. Robinson wants her facility to produce the data that will one day end bear farming for good. She insists this is possible, given the changes in Chinese public opinion. “These days, we can see and feel that the end is coming,” she says.
IT HAS TAKEN MONICA BANDO AN HOUR to cut through enough fibrous scar tissue to reach Monkey’s right liver lobe. “It’s nice and smooth,” she announces, and Robinson exhales audibly. Cancer is Robinson’s biggest worry for new arrivals, and a clear right lobe means that Monkey is most likely cancer-free. “Her left kidney feels fine,” Bando says. “Spleen feels fine. Her right kidney—yep, it’s normal.” Like many farmed bears, Monkey’s gall bladder wall is five times thicker than it should be, thanks to a decade of catheter jabbings. And her bile runs black instead of the normal greenish-yellow because of contaminants from blood, pus, and other materials. But there’s no hardware trapped inside, and it looks like she’s going to recover well.
The bears from the Shandong farm where Monkey lived have been particularly sickly. During the 1,400-mile ride back to the sanctuary last year, the truck caravan was stuck in traffic when the most elderly bear, 30-year-old Oliver, went into distress and needed life-saving surgery. “We were desperate,” says Rainbow Zhu, the organization’s former education manager. “Jill was very worried.” Zhu left the caravan and walked ahead to find a police officer. He explained that they needed to find a hospital—quickly. “They didn’t ask questions,” Zhu says. “They said, ‘OK, we’ll clear out the road. What do you need?'” The police called ahead to a rural hospital, then escorted the bears through the roadblocks. The hospital staff provided everything needed for outdoor surgery: portable lights, oxygen, a laboratory for blood tests, even hot coffee and staff to assist. And Oliver’s life was saved. “Anyone who writes China off as a nation of animal abusers and animal haters, I just want to say: You couldn’t be more wrong,” Robinson says.
Still, she does get frustrated. Eleven years after the landmark agreement, China still hasn’t reached its goal of releasing 500 bears. Officially, 7,000 remain trapped on bear farms, though Animals Asia believes the number is closer to 10,000—enough to produce 30,000 kilograms of highly lucrative bile. Farming continues in Vietnam, too, even though it’s illegal. “We stagger through this vision of horror every time a bear farm closes down,” Robinson says. “And still, we kick walls in frustration that there’s not someone in high-level authority in China, in Vietnam, that just says, ‘Enough, it has to close now, because it is unconscionable.'”
What sustains Robinson is the opportunity to work with the animals themselves. “Your heart lifts as you see bears playing with each other, or sleeping in their hanging-basket beds—two, sometimes even three to a bed. You see them go up and steal each other’s food. You see them foraging as they would in the wild.
“Their behavior rubs off on us and makes us understand why we’re here,” she says. “As much as we rescue the bears, they rescue us.”
Follow-up: In 2012, I write about about an eviction threat to Animals Asia’s Vietnam sanctuary. In 2013, the government announced the sanctuary was safe.