China’s animal rights record is dump, that’s not news to anyone I know. Sometimes I like to think that the bad stuff you hear about the way the Chinese treat animals is just some kind of exaggeration but unfortunately it isn’t. They just don’t care about the critters of the world at all. From wearing live turtles in a necklace to dog meat festivals, it’s pretty dark.
But, I suppose it’s a bit rich for us to look down our noses at them when a few years back the people of the UK absolutely loved bear baiting. Whether you decide to pass a sympathetic eye across the country or not, bile farming is about as bleak as it comes.
Bile bears or battery bears are kept in hideously cramped conditions for the sole purpose of removing bile for use in Chinese medicine. You know Chinese medicine right? Yeah, that’s it, potions and pills that generally do little more than a placebo would. Yup.
So, for those not in the know, bile is produced in the liver and stored in the gall bladder of mammals and is used in the process of digestion. Asiatic black bear and sun bear’s bile has been deemed excellent as a Chinese medicine. So, of course, there’s a lucrative trade in extracting the substance and selling it on. And, because China are ubiquitously ambivalent about animal suffering the methods used are less than Disneyland.
The first instance of bear bile being extracted and used as medicine is recorded in China in 659 AD. Back then they killed an animal and extracted the bile post mortem. That’s not so bad. We kill animals all of the time (well, Mr Abattoir does it on our behalf any way). But since the early 80s things took a notably dark nose dive as far as bear welfare was concerned…
Hunting and killing a bear for a few millilitres of bile is not an efficient way of getting rich. A much better idea is to keep the bear alive with a permanent drip coming straight from his insides. Great idea guys.
The practice of bear farming for bile has now spread to China, North Korea, South Korea, Laos, Vietnam and Burma with an estimated farmed population of tens of thousands of bile bears throughout Asia.
The problem is that the stuff is about half the price of gold, pound for pound, so it’s going to be very tempting to a poor farmer with a hungry family (or a greedy sadist with a well fed family).
So, this is what you need to do if you want to extract bile from a bear (what a weird sentence that was): first you need an extraction cage or “crush cage” to put your lucky bear into. These cages are roughly 79 cm x 130 cm x 200 cm, after all, you don’t want the bear wiggling about whilst your digging out the delicious green goo do you?
According to the Chinese government the bears are only kept in the cage whilst being milked but animal rights group have noted more than enough cases where the bears are kept cramped up and unable to move or stand on a permanent basis.
Bears in the wild can hit 30-years-of-age if they play their cards right. In the bile trade if one makes it to 5 he’s normally killed because his bile output has dropped too low, he’s then chopped up and sold on. Bears paws are a delicacy and can reach $250 each.
How-to guide on next page…
So how is the bile extracted? You have six options:
1) Repeated Injection
Get yourself an ultrasound device, track down the gall bladder then simply puncture and extract.
2) Permanent Implantation
Pop a tube through the abdomen and straight into the gall bladder then simply release the slime twice daily. Because bears, like most animals, try to heal wounds you will have to reopen the slit regularly. The bear does not like this.
As it sounds — just bang in a catheter and off you go.
4) The “Full Jacket”
Sounds sinister doesn’t it? That’s because it is, all of it is. This involves a catheter permanently in place which runs the bile down to a plastic bag set inside a metal box.
5) The “Free Drip”
This one’s the most “humane” apparently. You simply drill a hole in the bear so that it permanently oozes with bile. Of course, a permanent hole or fistula leaves the bear open to infection and excessive bleeding. But not to worry, as long as you’ve got your bile.
Just rip the bugger out and sell it on. There’s less money to be made here overall but if you need some quick bucks it’s a great option. Here’s what one looks like:
So the bears are obviously distressed, they’re constantly in pain, open to infection and prevented from moving and hibernating. Bears aren’t daft either, there’s a difference between pulling a spider’s legs off and permanently puncturing a bear.
Odd behaviour has been noted in these places as you can imagine. One Chinese news agency reported an incident in which a mother bear, having escaped her cage, strangled her own cub and then killed herself by intentionally running into a wall. Other reports spoke of bears eating their own paws. You don’t have to be David Attenborough to know that that’s wrong…
So why is this poor bugger’s bile so sought after? Well, according to Chinese medicine it can cure the following ailments: hemorrhoids, sore throats, sores, bruising, muscle ailments, sprains, epilepsy, fever, bad eye-sight, gall stones, it can also act as an anti-inflammatory, reduce the effects of a hangover, and ‘clear’ the liver.
And is there any scientific basis for its medicinal prowess? Yes, but only a little bit. The active ingredient in bear bile is ursodeoxycholic acid (UDCA) but seeing as there are 50 legal herbal alternatives and many synthetic alternatives there really is no reason at all to be torturing these bumbling ursine behemoths.
UDCA is also produced in other animals, but because Chinese medicine doctors found out that bears produce a higher volume than most animals, they opted to drain them; but seeing as other sources are freely available it is a complete nonsensical and unfunny joke that the bear is still ploughed for its green gold.
Will this practice ever go away? Hopefully, but probably not for ages. The problem is that the government of China think that bile farming is a positive move. They consider it preferable to hunting and killing wild (and endangered) bears. So if anything, they promote the farming industry. The shift in Chinese feeling towards animal cruelty is apparently on the rise in the younger generation, but it’s a slow burner for sure.