Animal welfare message hits home

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 01 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 01 March, 2012, 12:00am


Extracting bile from the gall bladders of Asiatic black bears for use in traditional Chinese medicine is not a pretty sight, nor is it a pleasant experience for the creatures. Yet Guizhentang Pharmaceutical is willing to ignore that in the name of the extraordinary profits that can be made. The Fujian company has launched a public relations campaign to counter the storm of protests from activists and growing numbers of high-profile and ordinary Chinese as it bids for an initial public offering and listing in Shenzhen. Such a backlash would have been unthinkable just a few years ago, but with affluence comes changed attitudes and understanding.

The company's efforts have been unconvincing. A visit by 70 selected journalists to its bear farm has raised more questions than it answered due to a lack of transparency. Each batch of reporters was given just a few minutes to observe the way in which the bile is taken from the bears and animal rights advocates and foreigners were barred. Being open to the public, fully explaining processes and procedures, proving beyond doubt that animals do not suffer and offering strategies to find alternatives are the only way to gain acceptability. Overseas-made synthetic substitutes are available for the bile, used for centuries to treat a wide range of ailments. But raising them as an alternative to Guizhentang Pharmaceutical's plan to increase its farm from 470 bears to 1,200 is also a clash between traditional Chinese values and modern mores. Defenders are aghast at suggestions of turning their backs on traditional ways and embracing foreign monopolies.

At issue is not culture and protection, though. It is decency. Bear farms keep animals in small cages and leave them exposed to infection by extracting bile through catheters from permanently open wounds. That would once have gone unnoticed, but Chinese now travel widely, keep pets and are exposed to a range of opinions through microblogs. A vibrant, homegrown consciousness about animal welfare has taken shape. It is the best way to right what is wrong.