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Vietnam: The torture of the Moon Bears

"Farmers" across South Asia ply a nasty trade in bear gallbladders, which are prized for their bile.

HANOI, Vietnam — An adult female moon bear, clearly drugged, stared with bleary eyes from the "crush cage" that contained her — a cage so small she couldn’t rise on all fours, let alone stand on her hind legs.

Not that she could, anyway, in her dazed condition.

On a monthly, weekly, or even daily basis, her owner would drug her, most commonly with ketamine — used legally by veterinarians to partially anesthetize a subject, but also illegally by date-rapists for roughly the same purpose — and jab her repeatedly with a lengthy syringe to find her gallbladder and suck out the bile.

Animal rights activists say the commonness of this practice, during which bears chew their own paws and moan, has risen steeply during most of this decade. But by raiding farms, rescuing the bears, and attempting to educate the public they hope to curb bear bile farming.

Bile "farmers" offered to extract bile on the spot and sell it at less than $2 per cubic centimeter. Traditional Chinese medicine proponents claim its properties can cure a variety of ailments including hemorrhoids and blindness.

Scores of bears, as large, or larger, than a man, which in the wild will migrate several miles in the course of a day, beat their heads against the bars of their tiny cages or chewed the iron, swayed from side to side and roared at visitors. They were missing fur and teeth, and, when contrasted with bears in more favorable surroundings seemed to have acquired an ursine version of madness.

Even those on the bile farms that appear uninjured are probably not healthy, and most end up having their gallbladders removed after rescue, according to Tuan Bendixsen, the Vietnam Director for Animals Asia Foundation.

“We found that with 80 or 90 percent of bears on the farms, their gallbladders are not destroyed, but they are useless,” Bendixsen said. “You stab them enough times in the same place, you damage the liver, you damage the gallbladder, and it just turns to scar tissue.”

Bendixsen said this is everyday life for an estimated 14,000 Moon Bears across South Asia — almost half of the estimated remaining population of a species that is listed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature as threatened. Bear bile farming is illegal in most countries, including Vietnam. But it persists here and in India, Korea, China, Laos and Cambodia where demand for Chinese medicine practices is strong, and where local authorities rarely enforce the law.

Charity organizations like Animals Asia are working with governments in Vietnam and China to try to eradicate or reduce the practice of bear bile farming. So far, the organization says it has rescued 219 bears in China and 48 in Vietnam, taking the Vietnam bears to a new facility sitting on 12 hectares of land in Tam Dao National Park, complete with outdoor tire swings, bamboo toys and a fountain.