Bile Bear

Bile bears or battery bears are Asiatic black bears kept in captivity in China and Vietnam to harvest bile, a digestive juice produced by the liver and stored in the gall bladder. When extracted, the bile is a valuable commodity for sale as an ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM).

The bears are also known as moon bears because of the cream-colored crescent moon shape on their chest. The Asiatic black bear, the one most commonly used on bear farms, is listed as vulnerable on the World Conservation Union’s (IUCN’s) Red List of Threatened Animals.

To facilitate the bile milking process, the bears are commonly kept in extraction cages, also known as crush cages, that measure around 2.6 feet x 4.4 feet x 6.5 feet (79 cm x 130 cm x 200 cm) for an animal that weighs between 110 to 260 pounds (50 to 120 kg). While this allows for easier access to the abdomen, it also prevents the bears from being able to stand upright, or in some cases move at all. Living for 10–12 years under such circumstances results in severe mental stress and muscle atrophy. The Chinese media reported an incident in which a mother bear, having escaped her cage, strangled her own cub and then killed herself by intentionally running into a wall. In two model Chinese bile farms, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) reports that the bears are moved to the crush cages for milking, but the rest of the time live in a cage large enough to stand and turn around.

The World Society for the Protection of Animals sent researchers to 11 bile farms. They reported seeing bears moaning, banging their heads against their cages, and chewing their own paws. The mortality rate is high. Bile bears suffer from a variety of physical problems which include loss of hair, malnutrition, stunted growth, muscle mass loss, and often have their teeth and claws extracted. When the bears stop producing bile after a few years, they are usually killed for their meat, fur, paws and gall bladders. Bear paws are considered a delicacy, and sell for upwards of $250.

According to the HSUS, the bile is usually extracted twice a day through an implanted tube, producing 10–20 mL of bile each time; the process is believed to be painful, as the bears can be seen moaning and chewing their paws while being milked. Other methods include pushing a hollow steel stick through the bear’s abdomen. The use of metal catheters has been banned, though HSUS writes that bile bears are still seen with catheters in them.

The ‘free drip’ method is regarded as more humane. A permanent hole or fistula is made in the bear’s abdomen and gall bladder, from which bile drips out freely. The wound is vulnerable to infection and bile can bleed back into the abdomen, causing a high mortality rate. Sometimes the hole is kept open with a perspex catheter, which HSUS writes causes severe pain.

There are estimated to be 4,000 bile bears in Vietnam, where their bile can sell for 100,000 dong (~ US$6.25) a milliliter (with 37,500 dong a week regarded as the poverty line for an urban resident), and around 9,000 bile bears in China.

The monetary value of the bile comes from the traditional prescription of bear bile by doctors practicing traditional Chinese medicine. Bear bile contains ursodeoxycholic acid (UDCA), which is believed to reduce fever, protect the liver, improve eyesight, break down gallstones, and act as an anti-inflammatory. The high demand for the bile has led to the introduction of intensive farming of bears. Because only minute amounts are used in traditional Chinese medicine, a total of 500 kg of bear bile is used by practitioners every year, but according to WSPA more than 7,000 kg is being produced, with the surplus is being used in non-essential products such as wines, eyedrops, and general tonics.

The active therapeutic substance in bear bile—and in the bile of all mammals—is ursodeoxycholic acid (UDCA). Before the manufacture of UDCA by pharmaceutical companies, bear bile was prescribed by practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine because it contained a higher percentage of UDCA than the bile of other mammals. However, modern chemistry has made this fact irrelevant. Today, pharmaceutical-grade UDCA is now collected from slaughterhouses, then purified and packaged under trade names such as Ursosan, Ursofalk, Actigall, and UrsoForte. These products are approved by the Federal Drug Administration (FDA). Chinese doctors have also endorsed several herbal substitutes, which provide a cheap, effective and readily available alternative.

Substances in mammalian bile other than UDCA, such as cholesterol, have never been demonstrated to have any healing effect in humans. Despite this observation and the availability of affordable pharmaceutical-grade UDCA, some practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine continue to prescribe whole bear bile for their patients and reject any sort of modern substitute. These individuals drive the market demand for bear bile and pressure the Chinese government to continue the practice of bear farming.

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