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November 29 2017. I have been working towards changing the terrible fate of “bile bears” for years, but I never thought seeing them in person would affect me so greatly.

 

There is a picture of an Asiatic black bear named Hai Chan that is hung in our Boston office. I glanced at it while returning to work from my trip to Vietnam. While there, I saw her in person, with her thick, horse-like fur and large, but non- threatening presence. The photo does not do her justice.



 

 Hai Chan is a victim of the bear bile industry, a business that few Americans have ever considered. Bears across Asia are caught from the wild or bred on farms to be sourced for their bile, the stomach acid that we all produce in our gallbladders. And you can likely guess how they extract that stomach acid: painfully and methodically with torture-like devices, without anesthetic or proper veterinary care. Bear bile is used in traditional Chinese medicine thought to cure anything from headaches to male impotence.

 

After our global petition signing campaign, the Vietnamese Government has recently taken firm legislative steps to end bear farming, though there are still approximately 1,300 so-called "bile bears" living under poor keeping conditions on roughly 400 bear farms. Many of these bears suffer in tiny metal cages, spending their days in a vegetative state, half-starved and dehydrated.

 

While many former bear bile farmers are conforming to new legislation, often times there is no place to bring the bears that are no longer being used for sourcing bile. And there is still a market for bear parts in Asia. This is why FOUR PAWS has opened BEAR SANCTUARY Ninh Binh.




 

I was in Vietnam for the rescue of the sanctuary’s very first residents: Hai Chan, Thai Van, and Thai Giang. To call the experience life-changing is an understatement.  In less than 24 hours, I saw the complete transformation of a life from torture and neglect to a home most could only dream of.  They will live out their days surrounded by mountains, in peace, away from the noise and commotion of the cities they left behind.

 

To say that this mission was challenging at every step is also an understatement.  Even just moving the bears from their cages on the bile farms was difficult.  The cages—no more than six feet by six feet with an opening less than two feet wide— had sheared bars and jagged edges that made them dangerous for both the bears and people.  I witnessed how our team had to strategize and problem solve on a moment’s notice throughout this rescue. One memory that particularly comes to mind is having to use tarps and brute strength to pull the bears safely out of the bile cages to ensure the bears would not be cut by the rusting metal.

 

The main thing that stood out to me during this mission was the professionalism of our team, especially that of the veterinary staff.  Things did not always go according to plan, but there was never panic, as plans and backup plans were in place well before we began the trip.  As I sat holding the paw of a bear while assisting during a medical examination, I was awed by the speed our veterinarian worked, assuring that the bear would be under anesthesia not a minute longer than necessary.   

 

I feel very fortunate to have taken part in this mission because now I cannot only properly discuss it, but give it the emotional weight it deserves. As the bears were safely brought into our sanctuary, a feeling of pride overcame the team.  Tears were shed as the culmination of years of work, struggles, setbacks, and successes resulted in a happy ending for these bears. 


Unfortunately, the story does not end here.  There is still much more work to be done in Vietnam and many more bears that need rescuing. It is also important to point out that this industry is not just in Asia. There is a clear market for bear bile here in the United States and our very own American black bears are killed, legally and illegally, across the country, and their gallbladders removed. This industry—similar to the rhino and ivory trade—needs to be social condemned, legally stopped, and institutionally enforced!  Until this change is seen, our work is not yet done.

 

I have always been dedicated to causes like this one where human markets dictate cruel and unnecessary practices on animals. Now I can glance at Hai Chan’s picture in our office—thousands of miles and a world away—and rest assured that she will get the kindness, expert care, and dignity she so rightfully deserves.


Robert Ware, Executive Director FOUR PAWS USA


To read more about FOUR PAWS' work on bear bile, click here. 


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