Unbearable? Farming Bear Bile

Update 2017:
South Korean Olympic officials are using the local bear as a symbol for upcoming winter games–but some never leave their cages and are slaughtered for their gall bladders and the bile that is believed to be a health aide. 

Update 2016:  “Bear Farming” involves locking bears in tiny cages for repeated sessions of painful, invasive extractions of their bile. It has become a regular practice in certain Asian countries, especially China. Now Laos is becoming a relatively new hot spot for bear farming.This National Geographic report looks at a trend it calls “disturbing.”

Set Free the Bears?
When it comes to the humane treatment of farm animals, I never thought much about bears. They seemed to be busy catching salmon in streams, scaring hikers on paths, or preventing forest fires. They occasionally sneak into a Florida backyard hammock, but why not—frightening tourists and retirees can be tiring.  

Another bear recently took police officers on an hours-long chase around the streets of downtown Anchorage, Alaska. 

So when I saw the term “milking bears,” it seemed humorous until I discovered it actually refers to the process involved with extracting bile from live bears—sometimes as often as three times a day. For centuries bile from their livers has been used as a traditional medicine, especially in China. Some believe it shrinks gallstones, reduces fevers, and possibly cures hangovers. 

Thousands of bears are caged on farms in Asia with permanently inserted tubes used to extract their bile. I’ve seen bears free in national parks and not so free in open zoo areas, but I have a feeling cages would be at the bottom of their habitat preference list. I doubt they are much worried about curing someone’s fever or hangover.
I had a close encounter with a bear in a cage many years ago when I lived in west Tokyo. While jogging one summer evening, I crossed the Nogawa River, turned onto a narrow dark street, and passed a restaurant that clung to the side of a steep hill. Its large black and white sign stood high and glowing in the night air. I could read the kanji for Hokkaido, the northern most island of Japan, and I picked out a few other symbols that convinced me it was an eating place, even though the wooden façade at street level did not advertise or display the usual plastic food samples in a glass window to entice customers.
I was fifty feet past the restaurant when I heard a movement in the shadows on my right. I flinched a bit, stopped, and listened to chains clinking and big feet shuffling. As my eyes adjusted, I saw that the rocks of the hillside—reinforced with concrete—framed an opening that held a small cage. Inside, with the dim street lights casting striped shadows, a bear swayed nervously—not loud or violent, just pathetic.
I looked at small desperate eyes in the cage, then back up to the restaurant sign that portrayed several animal silhouettes, including a bear. I knew bear meat was available in Hokkaido and assumed they transported bears to this tiny cage where they would then be butchered for the patrons. The breeze shifted a bit, and I caught a whiff of fear and feces.
I saw a bear there another time or two. I’d jog by in the night, see a shadow, and sense the fear. The following year I stopped there in daylight and saw only a concrete slab—the bars had been removed and the blood hosed out. The entire structure was dismantled soon after.
I imagine some folks have their opinions about why bears make good medicine or meat, but it seems degrading for such a wild spirited beast. Maybe we could figure out less unbearable ways to treat fevers and cure hangovers.
by dan gogerty (top photo from newsdesk.si.edu; bottom photo from rendezvous.blogs.nytimes.com; note–Set Free the Bears is the title of John Irving’s first novel)

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