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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.

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.