This story is…horrible. It was difficult to believe at first, so the event as it is about to be described has been verified as well as thorough research on the internet can provide. Just over two weeks ago at a still-unknown location in Northwestern China, a mother brown bear held on a farm where bear bile is harvested for medicinal purposes broke free of her cage and killed her cub before killing herself. Specifically, the mother bear somehow managed to escape then sought out her cub and smothered it to death before running head first into a wall and killing herself instantly due to massive head trauma. To put this in context, a brief explanation of why and how these bears were held captive is in order. In China, bile from the gall bladders of indigenous brown bears is still considered by some to be a powerful elixir in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). In humans, bear bile is used to treat chronic liver illnesses, high fevers and eye problems, among other things. Giant Robot’s research into the medicinal use of bear bile reveals that the substance is falling out of favor, even within the TCM establishment, because the health benefits of bile are increasingly difficult to substantiate, cheaper and more effective synthetic treatments are available, and the way in which it is harvested is cruel.
How cruel? Viable bile must be harvested from a living bear. In order to do this, a permanent hole must be made in the animal’s abdomen and gall bladder so the bile fluid can be collected every day using a drip tube. The bears receive no anesthesia for what amounts to an incised wound in their bellies, and so the animals are in constant pain. So much pain, apparently, that both adult bears and their cubs are locked into special rigid vests to keep them from killing themselves by ripping their stomachs open. Their mobility is further hindered by the “crush cages” in which they are kept. These cages are so small that bears have almost no room to move around, and are literally crushed as they get older and increase in physical size. The news reports provided at the links below, as well as other media sources reviewed for this piece, describe this as a life of torture for the bears.
From almost anyone’s perspective, torture is the most succinct and civilized way to describe what is done to these bears to harvest their bile. In the weeks since this story was first reported, speculation has strongly leaned towards the notion that on some level, the mother bear in this case had some idea of the prolonged suffering her offspring would have to endure, and acted to save her essentially doomed child, and herself, from a life of pain. As compassionate human beings, we sometimes have a tendency to over-anthropomorphize animals, to give them credit for greater understanding and awareness than we probably should. It’s our nature to do so; and is one of the best things about us because in some ways it makes us better as humans to treat animals as if they share some of our sentient qualities. But not every person nor every culture consistently treats animals with benign compassion or respect. And it is difficult to report a story like this about the horrible treatment of these bile bears without it seeming like it is also intended as a criticism of some traditional aspects of Chinese culture. Truthfully and overall, it isn’t. But this is a nasty story about torturous things some people still do to innocent animals for questionable reasons in China. This has to change, simply because in any country or culture the treatment of these bears is objectively and morally wrong.
AsiaOne, a news portal out of Singapore, was the first source to report this sad story. Their article, which includes a gallery of images from a bear bile farm, can be accessed here. The Mail UK Online also ran a report, seven days after AsiaOne, which you can read here. And if you want to do something to help the bile bears in China, consider learning about and donating to Animals Asia, an organization specifically dedicated to protecting Asian wildlife. Animals Asia’s End Bear Farming campaign is aimed directly at ending bear bile farming. You can even sponsor a rescued bear if you like.