Vietnam: The torture of the Moon Bears

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.

At this moment, 18 bears that Animals Asia rescued a few weeks ago near Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and transported to Hanoi wait in quarantine, where they will be until around the first of March. Even still in quarantine, the difference in their behavior is remarkable, Animals Asia veterinarian Kirsty Officer said.

“When they first arrived, many of them were not used to being around humans [who weren’t trying to extract their bile], so they would lunge at anyone who came near,” Officer said. “But within a couple of weeks, they were sitting in their cages waiting to get a yummy treat.”

But the rescue came too late for Raspberry, an adult male, whose organs had become so full of puss and scar tissue that his liver and gallbladder had grown together. Veterinarians tried to save him, to no avail.

“Raspberry’s abdominal area was just one necrotic mess of infection,” Heather Bacon, another veterinarian at Animals Asia, said. “His organs were in essence already dead. And yet his pus-filled bile was still being extracted to sell to consumers.”

So, is there any merit to the Chinese medicine claims of the healing powers of bear bile?

Yes and no, Bendixsen said. The most prized chemical in bear bile is UCDA, or ursodeoxycholic acid, which is used in the United States and elsewhere to treat some liver problems. However, a wide variety of other substances also possess similar properties, and are readily available.

Interviews with herbal vendors in downtown Hanoi were inconclusive as to whether public education campaigns were succeeding in lowering demand, as vendors alternately wished to barter or get rid of journalists.

Animals Asia does not have the capacity to rescue all 4,000 bears in captivity in Vietnam, Bendixsen said, but American zoos are welcome to adopt them.

“You’d just have to convince the government of Vietnam,” he said with a laugh.