This week: The trade in bear bile and body parts
As a vet, I am often asked silly questions by clients. Some questions are innocuous, but others display a dangerous and offensive ignorance.
A client with an old dog that has chronic liver problems asked me: 'I read on the internet that bear's bile can help with liver diseases, I was wondering if ...' I cut her off with a hand gesture before she could finish her sentence.
I took a deep breath to contain my anger at the absurdity of her question and retain a facade of civility. I then went on to explain in a polite voice the extreme cruelty of obtaining bile from a caged bear that is often imprisoned for 20 years until death. I wish people that farm bears could all find other vocations and make a living elsewhere or, if they enjoy their job, be damned like the bears they torture in their next life.
My first contact with this horrid trade was in Vietnam, where I was on holiday with my family. I was curious to investigate the local open market, which trades all sorts of things, including animals. There were many exotic birds, endangered tortoises and turtles and other reptiles and amphibians openly available at the market; there were apes of various types and even some wild cats and bears. It was disgusting and the poor hygiene conditions they were being kept in made even my well trained insensitive-to-smell nose want to run away and hide.
To escape the smell I walked down a narrow side path between two warehouses. As I was catching my breath I peered inside one of the warehouses through an open door.
It was dark and it took a little while for my eyes to adjust and when I was able to focus, what I saw took my breath away and made me very disappointed at humanity.
There were two storeys of cages on two levels housing bears that were being tortured alive. They were kept in cages so small that they couldn't turn around nor groom themselves; they were covered in their own excrement. I noticed a hose nearby, which I suppose was used to hose away the manure when someone had time.
There were horrible wounds on these bears. Some had their paws sawed off, leaving just four stumps; they wouldn't be using them in cages where they can't move about anyway. Some just had their fingers taken off to make them easier to handle.
There was a catheter protruding from the abdomen of all the bears from which 'bile' was collected in a bag. I use quotation marks for the word 'bile' because it only made up a small volume compared with the pus that also was there.
There were pressure sores on areas of the skin where the bear was literally growing into the bars as the cage was too small. There were other unexplainable wounds.
As I was looking in bewilderment at this new level of human cruelty, I heard some voices speaking Vietnamese at the other end of the warehouse and I ran, fearing for my life as a trespasser. I wondered what these people would be capable of if they can inflict such long-term suffering on another living thing.
Keeping or hunting of bears for purposes of harvesting bile or gall bladders occurs in many countries, including the mainland, South Korea, Vietnam and even in North America, where hunters kill bears for their gall bladder to be sold on the black market.
There is a substance that occurs naturally only in bear bile, called ursodeoxycholic acid, which is beneficial in the treatment of certain liver diseases.
For the client with the stupid question, I casually reached up to my medicine shelf and showed her pills that contain the aforementioned acid. It is made artificially, it is the same stuff, it is dirt cheap and it does not create a living hell for poor bears. The woman looked at me in a very embarrassed way as I told her that this drug was not appropriate for her animal's illness anyway.
There are certain traditional healers that still recommend bear bile instead of the humane alternative and it is important that we, the consumers, police these malpractitioners and identify them for the cruelty they perpetuate.
Besides bears, you are likely to find other endangered species in your medicines at the local herbalist. Say 'no' to questionable treatments that will cause definite pain to a poor animal that has no choice.
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