The story appears on

Page B12 , B13

February 24, 2012

GET this page in PDF

Free for subscribers

View shopping cart

Related News

Home » Feature » Animal Planet

Bear essentials and bear facts

FOR thousands of years, bears have been killed for their bile or the bile has been harvested - often cruelly extracted - for use in traditional Chinese medicine and other Asian remedies.

Commercial farming of Asiatic black bears (also called moon bears for the crescent-shaped tuft of white fur on their chest) under torturous conditions has been a source of controversy and cause of animal rights activists for many years. It became a furor this month after Guizhentang pharmaceutical company announced plans to raise money this year through an IPO, initial public stock offering.

Guizhentang and other licensed bile producers maintain that bile is harvested humanely and that bears do not suffer, that they are not confined to tiny cramped cages for their entire lives and they do not live with permanently implanted, often infected tubes. Today they have more space, even play space and toys and the bile is harvested with a sterile tube inserted twice a day into a surgical incision, the company says.

Few people have actually witnessed the extraction of bile, though gruesome pictures taken secretly have been posted online, some from illegal, unlicensed facilities.

Bear farm tourism

To make its case about humane treatment and painless extraction - and improve its IPO chances - Guizhentang invited Chinese and some foreign reporters to its Fuijan Province bear farm and processing facility on Tuesday. The farm in Quanzhou City is the biggest in southern China. It contains more than 600 bears and generates around 200 million yuan (US$31.8 million) in medicinal products.

More than 200 print, broadcast and online journalists from China and overseas converged on remote farm outside Quanzhou City for a heavily stage-managed trip. The farm itself is in Huyao Village, Huangtang Town, Hui'an County.

Because of the bile uproar, everyone wanted to see first hand what's billed as the humane and painless process of bear farming and bile extraction.

I admit I felt a bit of a guilty thrill, feeling as if I were about to witness horror that I could not stop.

The front gate of the bear farm looked like any park entrance and bore the name of the farm.

"Our business is growing very rapidly," said tour guide Luo Fengli from the company's sales department, adding that the company planned to turn the 80-hectare (197-acre) bear farm into a tourist attraction.

Guizhentang produces bear bile powder, capsules and tea. It has branches and stores across China.

Walking through the imposing gate, Luo welcomed picture-taking. We were astonished by the scene.

Dozens of young bears were playing in a large area separated from visitors by a moat and walls. Apparently in high spirits, they ambled or ran about, tried out swings, climbed on a jungle gym. Sometimes they fought over carrots or an apple tossed by visitors.

This is the Free-Range Zone for bears under three years old, too young to be caged in the nearby Extraction Zone - that's where healthy bears over three years old are confined, two to a cage, and "milked" twice a day. That's where they are likely to spend the next 25 years of life, until they no longer produce bile.

Short playtime

"Enjoy your fun now, baby, because you won't be running around when you turn three," I tossed a cucumber to a moon bear that climbed to the top of a giant swing and made funny poses for us.

"Black bears can live around 30 years in the wild, but our bears on the farm can live as long as 45 years," said Zhang Zhiyun, member of the company's board of directors.

Around 300 bears are caged in the extraction zone. All are farm-bred, none has been captured in the wild.

While feeding the cubs, I waited my turn to enter the Extraction Zone. Ten visitors in a group, we wore protective clothes, masks and hats and had our shoes disinfected for 10 seconds - because of the long line, few people took that long. I was told to hurry.

Camera flashes and noise were prohibited, since the bears frighten easily and stress makes extraction difficult. They were already uneasy.

No questions were allowed outside or inside the extraction area. A later news conference turned contentious when reporters pressed for answers.

"SHHHH," said an extraction supervisor whose face was masked.

The area was dimly lit, the walkway was damp and the smell of alcohol filled the air. We saw 24 cages, each five meters square and housing two bears. In front of each large cage was a little narrow cage called the "extraction cage," where bears are lured with food twice a day at 6am and 5pm. Since bile is a digestive juice, extraction is easier when they eat.

The bears are conditioned to expect extraction that comes with the pleasure of food. They are often milked while they eat and I did not see bears restrained or in obvious pain.

Bile is extracted with a sterile, stainless steel tube or catheter inserted into the gallbladder. When the bears are first caged, a surgical incision for the tube is made, connecting the gallbladder with the surface skin. This internal "tube" or passage was compared by the company to the healed ear hole for pierced earrings. The area is kept clean and disinfected. Critics say antibiotics used to manage chronic infection from the practice can be dangerous to human health.

Bears are often given their favorite foods, such as honey.

Adult bears can produce 1,500-2,000ml every day.

"Without proper extraction, the bile would be wasted. We collect less than 10 percent of the total, causing no harm to the bear," said an official statement by Guizhentang.

"It is just like getting your ears pierced. Is it painful when you put on your earrings?" said Zhou Ronghan, professor from the China Pharmaceutical University and a supporter of Guizhentang. He was invited to accompany reporters on their trip.

While I was tiptoeing in the cage house, some bears were sleeping or eating, while some gripped their cage, staring at us, their faces seeming vacant.

I heard occasional roars from the nearby cage house and other loud noises made by bears who were constantly rocking their cases.

"Those are normal animal sounds," the "SHHH" supervisor said. "Keep away from cages, they would grab you."

We stopped at a cage at the end of the aisle. At first the bear to be milked seemed upset and paced back and forth. But when an attended opened the door to the small extraction cage and put food inside, the bear quickly entered and began eating.

Another attendant crouched down and cleaned the bear's belly with alcohol. She inserted a 12-centimeter-long steel tube into the surgical incision and soon deep yellow-colored bile flowed into a measuring cup. When half the day's quota was reached, the tube was withdrawn.

Surprisingly, the bear remained calm, it did not roar or appear frightened. It kept eating during and even after the extraction. The company says it's painless.

The whole harvesting lasted only 30 seconds, and it takes place twice a day.

Each cage is linked to a backyard where bears can rest and move about after extraction. "They can play for a while and get some fresh air," the supervisor said. "We never anesthetize the bears before the extraction," board member Zhang later told reporters at a press conference. No bears have died on the farm in the past 10 years, he said.

Caged forever

Since they are three years old, adult bears are confined in pairs to that five-square-meter cage and a backyard for around 25 years, or until they no longer produce bile. The company said it would still care for the old bears until they die.

The message of old-age bear care and the whole visit is that this is not the 1980s when bears had life-long tube implants and were kept in tiny cages all their lives.

But what made me uncomfortable was not the pain but whether bear bile extraction was the right thing to do. Even if it were truly "painless," I still cannot accept it. The bears I saw may have more freedom and space than those on other bear farms, but it was still chilling to see the cages where bears would live for maybe 25 years. No matter how big, they are still cages.

Bear-bile farming is legal

Bear farming is legal in China but licensed farms are required to maintain humane conditions. Chinese pharmaceutical companies and traditional medicine practitioners say harvested bile is an irreplaceable ingredient, an anti-inflammatory agent, a detoxifier and a liver cleanser that treats many ailments, including spasms and eye diseases. They claim Western pharmaceutical companies want to grab the lucrative market by replacing bile from live bears with their laboratory products containing the active bile ingredient ursodeoxycholic acid (UCDA). It is used to lower cholesterol, treat gallstones, cirrhosis and liver cancer. It's produced with ox bile and is already popular in China.


Copyright © 1999- Shanghai Daily. All rights reserved.Preferably viewed with Internet Explorer 8 or newer browsers.

沪公网安备 31010602000204号

Email this to your friend