British and US celebrities have joined a campaign with Animals Asia to end the cruel practice of bear bile farming, where the animals are held in tiny cages and their bile painfully extracted to be used in traditional medicine.
The campaign, launched on Wednesday and supported by comedian Ricky Gervais and actor Dame Judi Dench, focusses on China and Vietnam, but the tradition has also been reported in South Korea, Laos and Myanmar.
According to Animals Asia, more than 10,000 bears are held in legal farms in China, while in Vietnam the figure is reported to be 438, despite the outlawing of the practice in 1992.
To date, the group has rescued 634 bears and recently signed an agreement with the Vietnamese government to completely end bear bile farming by 2022, transferring the remaining bears into full-time care in specialised sanctuaries.
Bear bile has been used in traditional Asian medicine for thousands of years as contains high levels of ursodeoxycholic acid (UDCA) known to be useful for treating liver and gallbladder conditions. It is also used as ointment or rubbing tincture for sprains or bruises.
But animal rights activists point out that the physical and psychological suffering caused by its extraction is inexcusable given the range of herbal and synthetic alternatives with the same medicinal properties.
This crisis has been a wake-up call for change, and our work in Vietnam shows change is entirely possible. We can put an end to the abject disregard for animals that has caused so much suffering, and create a better world. Because #TheOnlyCureIsKindnesshttps://t.co/7Ly5bqg6oR pic.twitter.com/9FIUmuyhdr— Animals Asia (@AnimalsAsia) August 5, 2020
The gruesome extraction techniques used on bears being kept in cramped cages range from “free drip” where the bear suffers a hole in their gallbladder, to the insertion of permanent catheters.
In Vietnam, the bears are first drugged with ketamine, roped down and then their abdomen punctured over and over with a spinal needle to find the gall bladder, Heidi Quine, Animal Asia’s bear and vet team director, told The Telegraph.
Rescued bears were found to have broken teeth, cancers, curvature of the spine and high blood pressure, as well as being traumatised, she said. The average lifespan of a captive bear is 6-8 years, compared to 30 in the wild.
The final product was also dangerous for humans, she added.
“There are records in Vietnam of people having died after taking bear bile products. An analysis of some of the bile shows that its full of cancer cells, pus cells, all sorts of infections. It makes people incredibly sick because it’s harvested in a manner that’s so unsanitary and dangerous," she said.
“We’re in a mess right now across the whole world purely because of our mistreatment of animals,” argued Ms Quine.
But a recent act of kindness has given the group hope for change. A man called the sanctuary in July to say he had bought two bear cubs from an illegal trader to try to save them from a life of misery after he spotted them in a rusty cage.
“When we got there, they were stuck in between two walls, less than a hand span in width and these two little young cubs were terrified and right at the back. It took a lot of kindness and patience to get them out,” she said.
“But within 36 hours we had them drinking milk well out of a bowl, and they’ve since been running amok in the dirt and enjoying the sunshine.”