Even at my lowest, I can usually convince myself of how important difficult life experiences are. How that it is only through my struggles that I can come to understand my fortunate existence, and how they deepen my subsequent happiness.
On this occasion, the clouds stretch far too wide, and the sunlight is far too faint for my hopeful eyes to see a silver lining.
I recently found out about something that I wish I hadn't.
Now I'm going to tell you what it is...
The Asian Black Bear - also known as the Moon Bear after the milky, crest-shaped tuft of fur on its chest - is a species of bear native to eastern Asia. Moon bears are tree climbers, living in hilly or mountainous regions and are capable of balancing on two feet, like us.
Here is a picture of a moon bear:
Unfortunately for moon bears, they naturally produce a type of stomach bile that is very valuable in Asia, most commonly used in Chinese medicines. There are dozens of synthetic and herbal alternatives to bear bile (many cheaper and more effective), nonetheless it is a highly prized commodity and sourced in a number of areas across China and Vietnam. The practice is known as bile farming.
To extract bear bile, one of the following methods is employed:
[These are taken directly from the journal of Chinese medicine website.]
1. Latex catheter
A narrow rubber pipe is embedded under the skin, and surgically attached to the gall bladder. The farmer then extracts the bile through the pipe which exits the skin at the top of the bear's thigh.
These "old-fashioned" latex catheters were largely phased-out in the mid-80s, as the catheter became easily clogged and it was therefore not an effective extraction method. Subsequent modification to this technique saw the introduction of the metal jacket.
2. Metal jacket
A rubber pipe is connected to a fluid bag inside a metal box, which is attached to a metal ‘jacket’ tightly holding the box in place under the bear's abdomen. The bile drained through the rubber pipe is emptied every two weeks by the farmer.
In addition to even greater levels of discomfort and pain, the metal jackets – which weigh over 10 kilos – also cause massive hair loss and painful irritation over the bears' bodies, as they are never removed. Designed to restrain the bears, sharp metal spikes poke into the bears’ necks to stop them bending their heads, and straps and strips of metal restrict their limb movements.
Metal pins, hooks, and any and all makeshift devices are crudely inserted directly into the gall bladder to hold the catheter in place. This is almost always done by unqualified people in conditions ripe for infection.
3. Metal catheter
Varying in length from 5 to 7.5 inches, a catheter is surgically implanted into the bears' gall bladder, allowing the farmers to milk the bears daily. During milking, the bears are enticed to lie flat on the bottom of the cage in order to feed from a low tray, thereby allowing the farmer easy access to the bear's abdomen and catheter.
Often, a metal "crush" (a metal grille) is lowered on top of the bears to force them to remain flat until the farmer has finished the procedure. In many cases, the farmers have never bothered to raise the crush bar, and Animals Asia has rescued many bears in cages with crushes rusted permanently into the lowered position, pinning the bears flat to the bottom of the cage for what is, evidently, many years.
4. “Free-dripping" technique
In recent years, Chinese bear farmers have introduced a new, so-called humane, "free-dripping" method of bile extraction. This method uses no catheter, but sees a permanent hole, or fistula, carved into the bear's abdomen and gall bladder, from which bile drips freely out.
During this type of bile extraction, the bears are tempted by food or honey water to lie on the bottom of the cage, while the farmer forces an insanitary tube into the gall bladder; this breaks the membrane that has grown over the hole, and allows bile to flow directly into a bowl beneath.
The damage caused by bile leaking back into the abdomen, together with infection from the permanently open hole is as bad, if not worse, than the older style methods and subsequently there is still a high mortality rate on the farms.
5. "Fake-free dripping" technique
In 2005, Animals Asia discovered a new technique of bile extraction being tested out on the bears - "fake free-dripping". Rather than a fistula, or ‘hole’, in the abdomen, the farmers now insert a permanent, perspex catheter into the fistula, which is almost impossible to see unless the abdomen is shaved and examined close-up. This new technique is against China's current regulations on bear farming.
Due to all the various procedures they are subjected to, the farmed bears’ livers and gallbladders become severely diseased, and the bile collected contaminated with pus, blood, urine and faeces.
Bears in Vietnam are subjected to a range of procedures. All are caged, but unlike bears on China’s farms which are ‘tapped’ for the bile, in Vietnam bears undergo crude surgery to remove bile from their gall bladders every few months, leaving infected wounds, which often lead to death after three or four such operations.
Today, the bears usually have their gall bladders punctured with long needles, which then "siphon" off the bile via a pump into a bottle. In this method, the bears are sedated - usually with ketamine - restrained with ropes, and have their abdomens jabbed repeatedly with four-inch needles until the gallbladder is located. Continuous puncturing of the gall bladder often leads to bile leakage, and a slow and painful death from peritonitis.
Thus the typical moon bear life sees them confined to a coffin while their stomachs slowly bleed and infest, or are repeatedly stabbed (often both). Most farmed bears are starved, dehydrated, and suffer from multiple fatal diseases and malignant tumours. Their heads swell. Their limbs deteriorate. Their mental state becomes fractured from their inability to move, their aching open wounds, and their loss of a natural environment and family. They chew their paws in pain and distress. (If their paws even remain - many bears lose limbs when they are originally snared). When a moon bear is no longer useful for bile extraction, it is either left to die, or slaughtered for its paws and gallbladder.
Some bears are imprisoned in cages as cubs and never released.
They cry, naturally.
Before I continue, I would like to take a brief, but ultimately necessary detour to review the conditions of battery hens:
[This has been edited for length from Wesleyan Animal Rights Movement]
Battery hens are kept in windowless sheds, cramped in long rows of stacked cages containing an area less than half the size of a sheet of A4 paper. They have a wingspan of nearly 3 sheets of A4. Battery cages have sloping wire floors that prevent a hen from sitting, sometimes causing their feet to grow around the bars leaving them immobile and starving to death. They also have wire walls in which hens often get their head stuck, leading to the same fate.
Male chicks, who are of no value to the egg industry, are immediately killed. They are either tossed into garbage bags, left to suffocate or to be crushed, or are macerated in high-speed grinders. For the female chicks, after birth they are kept in out buildings for about 20 weeks until they enter their cage where they remain, without exception, until they are a year old when they are killed. They are often kept in the dark except at feeding times.
Battery hens are housed in flocks up to 1,000 times their natural size, and are unable to establish a social hierarchy normal to free flocks. The size and nature of the cages prevents hens from spreading or stretching their wings. They are prohibited the basic natural instincts of perching, scratching, roosting, dust-bathing, and nesting quietly. They are thus caused to become aggressive and attack other hens.
To reduce cannibalism among frustrated hens, a blade or laser is used to remove up to two-thirds of their beak. Some hens die from shock; others may feel lifelong pain or suffer from a permanent reduction in feeding. Evidence suggests phantom limb pain, and tumours form in the damaged tissue of the amputated beak stump.
Battery hens suffer from feather-loss, blisters, tumours, foot and leg deformities, osteoporosis, Fatty Liver Syndrome, Swollen Head Syndrome, heat stress, mash, mould toxins, mouth ulcers and many other diseases. Veterinary care is non-existent, as individual hens are considered cheap and expendable. Critically ill birds are thrown onto "dead piles."
I am so utterly incapable of effectively conveying the degree to which these practices upset me. Animals are starved, slaughtered, tortured, suffocated, crushed, dismembered, and castrated because they can produce a profit. Because their skin looks nice. Because they taste good.
How curious it is that the word humane, to be human, is used to describe kind acts, when human beings are the only species capable of such magnificent cruelty.
What you do with this knowledge is up to you. Should bile farming ever come to a close, the moon bears will not realise that we have saved them; we will never receive thanks. One day, something somewhere will cease being tortured. And that's about all.
Despite my belief that this disturbing issue is impossible to ignore, the fact that the practice even exists tells me that I'm wrong - I already know most people reading won't give it a second thought.
If nothing else, though, I'd like you to tell a friend about it. Just tell another person about bile farming. I think somebody might like to know.
One last thought.
Battery hens are kept in their torturous conditions for an average of 42 weeks.
Every second, of every day, for 42 weeks.
Moon Bears are caged for up to 20 years.