Saving Shamrock and her fellow bears from China's appetite for bile
The Asiatic black bear gave a deep growl and struggled in a rusty cage only just bigger than her giant body, as rescue workers from the Animal Asia bear sanctuary fed her fruit to soothe her shattered nerves, and examined her body for signs of sores or bleeding.
“What we have here are six highly traumatised bears from an illegal bear bile farm here in Sichuan province,” said Jill Robinson, the founder and chief executive of Animals Asia, which runs this rescue centre north of the Sichuan capital, Chengdu.
“One of the bears has bile leakage, and others have the stereotypical head injuries from bashing the bars of their cages. But it’s such a relief to have them here.”
At special farms throughout China, about 10,000 bears – mainly moon bears but also sun bears and brown bears – live out their lives in tiny cages called “crush cages”, barely big enough to hold them.
The bears’ gall bladders are “milked” painfully every day for bile through specially installed catheters. The bile is used in 123 different kinds of Chinese medicines, especially for liver disorders.
Shamrock the bear
The she-bear, who has been named Shamrock after an Irish pub in Chengdu that has given generously to the sanctuary, was numbered, offloaded from the truck, and transported to the quarantine area, where she was given food and water.
Bile is extracted using various painful, invasive techniques, all of which cause massive infection in the bears. Some bears are put into cages as cubs and never released.
The Chinese government agency Sichuan Forestry linked up with Animals Asia to rescue the six bears.
“It’s hard to tell if the situation is getting better or worse,” said Ms Robinson.
“In Vietnam it’s illegal and the number of bears has reduced from 4,000 to 2,400. Today in China there are a minimum of 10,000 in bear bile farms. The positive thing in China is the rise in public outrage about bear-bile farming. At one stage it was the second-most searched term after Jeremy Lin.”
The Chinese government is cracking down on illegal bear-bile farming, although the practice is not against the law if farms have licences for it. Farmers and pharmaceutical companies say it is humane but Animals Asia strongly disagrees.
“When they say they have better, more humane ways of extracting the bile, it’s rubbish. You can’t surgically extract the bile and say it’s humane – it’s offensive,” said Ms Robinson.
There are 147 bears at the centre, most of them moon bears, so-called because of a striking crescent marking across their midriff. The centre’s aim is to give the rescued bears a better life. Their food is scattered in different places every day.
The centre is a hopeful place, and the animals look peaceful and happy. At the same time there is horrific evidence of the cruelty of bear-bile farming. One bear called Bottom shakes her head back and forth repeatedly at the edge of the enclosure, clearly traumatised by years of farming.
“We’ve managed to condition it out of most of the bears but in some the trauma is so hard-wired it’s hard to relieve. But she is healthy physically,” said Ms Robinson.
In another enclosure is 33-year-old Oliver. He spent 30 of those years in a cage.
“We call him our broken bear. His body conformity is all out of kilter, his legs are too short and he has just lost an eye. We just hope he keeps going a little while longer. He’s definitely the old man of the sanctuary. During 30 years in a cage he had no enrichment, no quality of life, no toys, no stimulation – nothing,” said Ms Robinson.
Most farmed bears are starved, dehydrated and suffer from multiple diseases and malignant tumours that ultimately kill them.
Monica Bando, senior vet at the centre, said bears are extremely stoical animals, and that is part of their problem.
“They can withstand an extreme amount of pain that no other animal would be able to withstand, without necessarily showing clinical signs. That stoicism works against them, because the farmers and the pharmaceutical companies say they are not in pain,” said Ms Bando.
For Shamrock the nightmare is over. Following the health check she was transferred into roomier recovery cages filled with straw. She and her five rescued colleagues are noticeably calmer.
If emergency surgery is required she will get it at the centre’s impressive facilities. She will be monitored, fed and cared for before taking her place with the other rescued bears at the sanctuary.