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Bears, Bile, and Extraordinary Tales of Survival: Just Who Do We Think We Are?

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Jasper is an endangered Asiatic bear, also known as a moon bear because of the yellow crescent on his chest. In 2000, he came to Animals Asia's Moon Bear Rescue Centre in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, China.

When Jasper arrived, his rescuers had to cut him out of a tiny "crush cage," where had spent 15 years held down so the farmer could extract the lucrative bile from his gall bladder. Bear bile is used in traditional Chinese medicine and fetches a tidy price. But it comes at a terrible cost to the bears who are imprisoned for years on end in tiny cages in which they can't move. Oliver, who was rescued recently, spent 30 years in such a deplorable situation, in a cage no bigger than his body, all "in the name of bile." Shame on us for doing this to him and other bears.

Thousands of moon bears remain trapped on bile farms throughout Asia. Moon bears are listed at the highest level of endangerment by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, but China gives them only Category II protection, which allows them to be farmed.

The official number of farmed bears in China is 7,000 but Animals Asia fears it's really around 10,000. Bear farming is supposed to satisfy local demands for bile, while reducing the number of bears taken from the wild. However, despite the fact that it's been illegal to take bears from the wild since 1989, they're still poached for their whole gall bladders, or as an illegal source of new stock for farms.

The Moon Bears Rescue Program was sparked in 1993 when Jill Robinson discovered the horrors of bear farming. Over the last ten years, 276 chronically ill bears have been rescued from Chinese farms. Bears invariably arrive at the rescue centre suffering serious physical and psychological trauma from their incarceration and the painful extraction process (which, in China, is done through a crude catheter or permanently open abdominal wound).

Every bear who arrives at the rescue centre needs surgery to remove damaged gall bladders; many need additional surgery and long-term medical care. They suffer from broken and missing teeth (from bar-biting or because farmers wanted to make the bears less dangerous); missing paws and claws; infected and necrotic wounds; blindness; liver cancer (which kills about 50 percent of the rescued bears) and a litany of other chronic ailments. They're incapable of surviving in the wild. Many are incapable of surviving even after they're rescued.

In contrast to the horrors of bear farming, the rehabilitation process is amazing and inspiring to witness. Watching rehabilitated bears play is a true joy. Many continually seek out playmates, an indication they've substantially recovered from their trauma. Yet some bears show flashbacks and quirks from their unspeakable abuse. Jill notes that the transformation in personality of an animal so violent and fearful of humans to one who is trusting, inquisitive, and completely at ease with people is truly remarkable. She's right. I've visited the rescue centre and my life was changed. That's how powerful the bears' stories are.

The moon bear rescue project raises important questions about animal behavior, conservation biology, and cross-cultural cooperation. Why do bears show large individual differences in response to persecution and rehabilitation? How can people from outside China work to free bears while respecting their Chinese colleagues and remaining sensitive to cultural tradition?

Bear bile remains at the center of wanton, remorseless, and inexcusable abuse. It has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for more than 3,000 years to treat "heat related" ailments such as eye and liver diseases. Today, it's used to treat conditions from hangovers to hemorrhoids.

However, bear bile isn't the panacea it's touted to be. Bile from farmed bears often is contaminated with pus, blood, urine, and feces. Veterinarians describe bile leaking from the diseased gall bladders of rescued bears as an unhealthy "black sludge," and they fear cancer cells are present in bile extracted from bears with liver tumors.

Efforts to stop bear farming and counter spurious claims about the healing powers of bear bile are ongoing. Soon after Animals Asia was founded, Jill negotiated a groundbreaking agreement with the Chinese government to work towards the elimination of bear farming. The worst of the farms are identified for closure and Animals Asia compensates farmers financially so they can retire or start another business. To date, 43 farms have been closed and China hasn't issued new licenses since 1994. The head of the Wildlife Protection Department under Sichuan Forestry, Madam Xiong Beirong (which means "Madam Bear" in Chinese), has offered to work with Animals Asia to discourage the use of wild animals in TCM. The prized ingredient in bear bile, ursodeoxycholic acid, can be synthesized easily under laboratory conditions, and it's pure, clean and reliable.

Jill Robinson's ongoing goal is to have the rescue bears awaken every day with the sun on their backs and without fear in their hearts. Each bear surely appreciates the effort. Just look into their eyes and you'll feel their gratitude. I have. Beleaguered moon bears are ambassadors for forgiveness, trust and hope. We can learn a lot about ourselves if we open our hearts to who other animals really are, truly extraordinary beings.