Moon Bears in Distress, All for the Love of Bile
Two enormous hind paws, one wrapped in a purple blood-pressure cuff, stick out from the edge of an operating table. A veterinarian presses a stethoscope to the patient’s chest. Nearby, Jill Robinson helps prepare for the day’s surgery: shaving fur, clipping nails, extracting blood for lab tests. She inspects the patient’s teeth and ears. Then she pauses. Robinson leans over and inhales deeply, for a moment allowing the animal’s earthy scent to distract her. "Bear paws," she says, "are lucky to smell."
Today’s patient is named Monkey. She’s a 216-pound moon bear -- an endangered species named for the cream-colored crescents that mark its members’ black chests. Monkey is small but long-legged, with the biggest Mickey Mouse ears Robinson has ever seen. Head tilted back, she will breathe through an orange tube until her surgery is complete and her chest cavity sewn back together seven hours from now.
As Robinson darts around the surgical suite, she thinks back to the 2,800-mile journey to rescue Monkey and nine other bears. The animals came from a farm in China’s Shandong Province, where they’d lived in small rusted cages and wore heavy armored jackets designed to restrict their movements. Metal hooks and rings held in place permanent latex catheters. The medieval-looking equipment was used to extract the bears’ bile, which is used in Traditional Chinese Medicine and sometimes finds its way illegally to the United States. Robinson, the 53-year-old founder and CEO of the non-profit Animals Asia Foundation, has worked for 18 years to end bile farming, a practice that many traditional-medicine practitioners call cruel and unneeded.
Since 2000, Robinson’s foundation has negotiated the closure of 43 Chinese bile farms and the release of 277 bears. It learns about the farms from government officials and the public. The damaged creatures cannot survive in the wild, so Animals Asia has set up a bamboo-shaded sanctuary on 33 acres near Chengdu, in Sichuan Province. Here, they have access to grassy enclosures equipped with hammocks, wading pools, and climbing bars. They enjoy fresh fruits and vegetables, quality medical care, and the company of one another. The foundation runs a second sanctuary in Vietnam, where it has rescued 90 bears.
But before Monkey can relax with the others, she must first undergo several medical procedures. Today, veterinarian Monica Bando will remove the bear’s gall bladder, ruined after years of bile extraction. Bando will also look for embedded hardware, along with signs of liver cancer, believed to be a product of the cascading inflammatory responses to a lifetime of physical assaults. "She’s not out of the woods," says Robinson, sounding like an anxious mom.
As Bando gets ready to lay down the surgical drape, Robinson picks up a clipboard with Monkey’s medical record. "Small thin bear," it says. "Clearly had metal jacket on." Monkey has joint problems and a hernia, and her teeth are ground down from chewing nervously on the bars of her farm cage. The chart’s first page chronicles a multitude of chest injuries, particularly around the catheter site. "They have a whole storyboard of pain," Robinson says.
Robinson was working for the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) in Hong Kong when she received a call from a journalist friend in 1993. "My God, I’ve just been to one of these horrendous bear farms," she recalls him saying. "Jill, you have to go." Robinson -- a British-born animal lover whose dreams of veterinary school were dashed when she failed chemistry and physics -- knew nothing about moon bears (also called Asiatic black bears) and little about bile farming. But she traveled to China’s Guangdong Province and tagged along on a farm tour, sanitized for tourists. She watched as the farmers showed off a pit containing about 20 breeding bears and encouraged visitors to tease the hungry creatures by dangling apples from a fishing line.
As the others were ushered into a bile shop, Robinson broke away and slipped downstairs into a dark basement where the bile bears, some of them skeletally thin, lived inside foul-smelling cages. "I could see shadows inside, and I could hear popping vocalizations," she says. "The closer I got to the cages, the louder and more frantic these vocalizations became. I realized that my presence was causing them anxiety that something horrible was going to happen." The memory of that day still evokes tears.
"When I got close to the cage, I could see exactly why they were afraid," she continues. "They were in an awful, awful state. Some of them had grown into the cage bars. They had scars running the length of their bodies. They had had their teeth cut back to gum level. Some of them had missing paws from being caught illegally in the wild in leg-hold traps. And all of them were out of their heads with fear."
Before that visit, nothing had infuriated Robinson so profoundly. IFAW sent her photos around the world, sparking outrage from the media and the public. Robinson contacted Chinese government officials, who agreed to meet with her. And she set out to educate herself about bile, bear farms, and Traditional Chinese Medicine.