There are between 7,000 to 12,000 bears on bear-bile farms in China.
The captive animals are used to supply the Traditional Chinese Medicine market. Bear bile has been an ingredient in Chinese medicine for thousands of years, but intensive bear farming only came into existence in the 1980s when China's supply of wild bears started to run low.
Usually bile is extracted from the bears' gallbladders twice a day through a surgically implanted tube. The process, called "milking," produces about 10–20 ml of bile each time. Milking is clearly painful for the bears, who often moan and chew their paws during the process.
Sometimes the farmers just push a hollow steel stick through a bear's abdomen, and the bile runs into a basin under the cage. Surgery to insert the tube or stick is seldom performed by veterinarians (very few bear farms employ them). Roughly half of the bears die from infections or other complications.
The catheter has been banned as a method for bile extraction (although bears have still been seen with catheters in them). In recent years, the government has been promoting the so-called humane "free dripping" method, which sees a permanent hole or fistula carved into the bear's abdomen and gall bladder, from which bile "freely drips" out. The damage caused by bile leaking back into the abdomen, together with infection from the permanently open hole is as bad, if not worse, than the older style methods and causes a high death rate on the farms. Because the body's natural instinct is to repair itself, farmers have had a difficult time keeping the hole in the abdomen open. This has led to illegal use of a small Perspex catheter which keeps the hole permanently open and infected, inflicting severe pain on the bears.
On most bear bile farms, the bears are housed in a cage that is about 2.6 feet x 4.2 feet x 6.5 feet—so small that these 50- to 118- kilo animals can barely sit up or turn around. The bars pressing against their bodies leave scars, some as long as four feet. Some bears have head wounds from banging them against the bars. Many of the bears have broken and worn teeth from biting the bars.
WHAT HAPPENS TO CUBS AND OLDER BEARS
Captive-bred cubs are taken from their mothers at three months. (In the wild, they stay with their mothers for up to 18 months.) Infant death rate is high. Some farms train cubs to perform in circuses (riding a bicycle, boxing, or walking a tightrope) until they are about 18 months old. Milking of the gallbladder begins at three years. Bears can produce bile longer than 5-10 years. Some bears arriving at the Animals Asia Moon Bear Rescue Center have been in cages for 20 years or more, still producing bile at the time of their surrender.
Gallbladders can be worth much more than $150 USD depending on where they are sold. There are no fixed figures for the price of gallbladders in China, but many investigations have put it at much higher than $150 USD. Once smuggled to Japan and Korea, they can fetch several thousand dollars
Once they stop producing bile (between five and ten years of age), bears are either allowed to die from starvation or illness, or they are killed so the farm can sell their paws (one quoted price was $250 USD each) and gallbladders ($150 USD each).
WHAT IS BEAR BILE
Bile acid has been popular in traditional medicine for about 3,000 years. Unfortunately for bears, they produce more of it than any other mammal. Bile is excreted by the liver and stored in the gallbladder, from which it is released into the stomach to help digest food. Bear bile is marketed as a treatment for a staggering array of human illnesses, from cardiac illness to impotence to sore eyes. You can buy it in almost any form: pills and powders, ointments, lozenges, wines, and shampoos. But some doctors of traditional medicine use herbal and synthetic alternatives to bear bile that are less expensive and more readily available.
It's important to note that the herbal and synthetic alternatives to bear bile are 100% equal to bear bile in effectiveness.
To learn more about bear bile farming, visit Animals Asia The wonderful work of Jill Robinson (who we met in Melbourne in 2006) in rescuing and rehabilitating these beautiful and proud bears is truly inspiring.