Animals Asia focuses on ending bear bile farming and cat and dog eating in Asia.
The Hong Kong-headquartered charity has two Moon Bear Rescue Centres, one in China, the other in Vietnam. Working with the governments of these two countries, we are rescuing 500 endangered moon bears in China and 200 in Vietnam while promoting the use of herbal alternatives to bile. The eventual aim is to end the barbaric practice of bear farming in Asia. Through our grassroots “Friends… or Food?” campaign and our animal-therapy programmes, Animals Asia is finding ways to promote companion animals as our friends, not food.
Throughout Asia, many animals are exploited, abused and neglected. Animals Asia Foundation, founded by Jill Robinson MBE in 1998, is dedicated to ending cruelty and restoring respect for all animals across the region. Animals Asia is a grass-roots, non-governmental organisation headquartered in Hong Kong, with offices in the UK, USA, Australia, Germany and Italy, and Moon Bear Rescue Centres in China and Vietnam. The foundation has more than 230 staff worldwide.
Animals Asia works with governments, local authorities and communities on a number of projects aimed at finding long-term solutions to problems of animal cruelty.
The Moon Bear Rescue
Our biggest project, the Moon Bear Rescue, involves rescuing suffering and endangered bears from cruel bile farms in China and Vietnam. In China, Asiatic black bears (known as moon bears because of the golden crescents on their chests) can spend up to 25 years in coffin-sized cages where they are milked daily for their bile, often through crude, filthy catheters. The process is agonising.
The bears are also milked through permanently open holes in their abdomens. This is the so-called “humane” free-dripping technique. It is the only permitted method of bile extraction in China, but still causes constant, agony and the slow death of the bears.
In Vietnam, bile is extracted with the assistance of an ultrasound machine, catheter and medicinal pump. The bears are drugged – usually with ketamine – restrained with ropes and have their abdomens repeatedly jabbed with four-inch needles until the gallbladder is found. The bile is then removed with a catheter and pump.
Bear bile is used in traditional medicine, even though more than 50 far more affordable herbal alternatives and many synthetic options are readily available.
As of January 2009, Animals Asia had rescued a total of 271 bears – 247 in China (171 still living) and 24 in Vietnam (23 still living).
The ambitious bear rescue project was hatched in 1993 when Animals Asia Founder and CEO Jill Robinson investigated a bear bile farm in China. Ms Robinson had been working in animal welfare in Asia for many years, but nothing had prepared her for the horror of that farm. “It was a torture chamber, a hell-hole for animals. They literally couldn’t move, they couldn’t stand up, they couldn’t turn around,” she says. She made a promise to the bears that day: she would devote her life to freeing them from their torture and would not stop until every last bear farm had closed down.
Moon Bear Rescue Centre, China
In July 2000, after years of negotiating and lobbying, Ms Robinson signed a landmark agreement with the Chinese authorities to rescue 500 moon bears and bring them to Animals Asia’s sanctuary in Chengdu, Sichuan Province and work towards ending the barbaric practice of bear bile farming. The farmers are compensated financially so they can either retire or set up in another business. Their farms are closed down, and their licences are taken away permanently. Under the agreement, we are also working together to promote herbal alternatives to bile.
Officially, 7,000 bears are still trapped in farms throughout China, but Animals Asia suspects the figure is as high as 10,000.
The rescued bears leave the farms in an appalling state, many suffering from crippling ailments, such as arthritis, peritonitis, weeping ulcers and ingrown claws. They need surgery to remove their damaged gall bladders, many have broken teeth from years of biting the bars of their cages, a third are missing limbs, and all are in a state of severe psychological trauma.
These bears can never be returned to the wild because they lack survival skills. But they enjoy the next best thing, living in large enclosures with rock pools, wooden climbing equipment and cosy dens to sleep in. Remarkably, nearly all of these bears can put the past behind them, learning to walk, run, swim, climb and interact with the other rescued bears.
These are our “ambassador” bears, who show the world what a forgiving, intelligent species theirs is. Through exposure in the media, education programmes in schools and Open Days at the sanctuary, more and more consumers are saying ‘no’ to bear bile.
The Chengdu sanctuary employs more than 140 local on-site staff – bear managers, maintenance workers, drivers and horticulturalists, as well as public relations and administrative staff. It also has a highly skilled veterinary team. Central to the sanctuary is the Education Village, where visitors learn about Animals Asia’s message that animals have the right to live free from exploitation and cruelty. Thousands of school children visit the centre each year.
Moon Bear Rescue Centre, Vietnam
Phase one of Animals Asia’s new Moon Bear Rescue Centre in Vietnam officially opened in May 2008. Nestled in an idyllic valley in the stunning Tam Dao National Park, 70 kilometres northwest of Hanoi, the sanctuary is currently (in early 2009) home to 23 rescued bears, including three sun bears.
Most of these bears are wild-caught, with many missing limbs as a result of cruel leg-hold traps. In the wild, they live up to 30 years, but bears on farms survive for just five to 10 years before dying of infection, disease, malnutrition and mental stress.
The quarantine facility (phase one) comprises two bear houses, each with 12 bear dens, an isolation building capable of holding up to 40 transport cages, a surgery, food preparation areas (for bears and staff), storage and an office. It also has a state-of-the-art waste treatment system, protecting the surrounding environment: a power substation and a water drainage system complete the first phase. The quarantine facility is capable of receiving up to 50 bears.
Work is going ahead on phase two, and when phase three is complete, the sanctuary will include more dens (including a special den for cubs), semi-natural enclosures and rehabilitation areas with rock pools and climbing frames – a whole new world of adventure for the bears to explore.
The rescue centre will eventually be the focus of our campaign to end bear farming in Vietnam, with an education centre, herb garden (growing alternatives to bear bile), visitor viewing area and staff accommodation. When complete, the sanctuary will have the capacity to house over 200 bears.
About 4,000 bears are held in cages on bile farms throughout Vietnam. While bile extraction has been technically illegal since 1992, the practice remains widespread. The farms welcome busloads of visiting Koreans, who are among the world’s biggest consumers of bear bile.
Animals Asia has been negotiating with the Vietnamese Government since 1999 on the issues arising from non-enforcement of the law. In 2005, after years of lobbying by Animals Asia as well as other international and local NGOs, the authorities promised to act to phase out bear bile farming. In 2006, Animals Asia signed an agreement with the Vietnam Forest Protection Department to build the sanctuary in Vinh Phuc Province and to rescue 200 bears from farms.
At this time, the government also introduced a law stating that any bears found without microchips on farms would be confiscated and placed in Animals Asia’s care. The World Society for the Protection of Animals worked with Vietnam’s Forest Protection Unit to microchip all the country’s bears to distinguish them from new (illegal) bears.
Complications arose in 2008 when the national government failed to confiscate 80 non-microchipped bears, instead of passing on the responsibility to the provinces. Animals Asia’s Vietnam Director, Tuan Bendixsen, is in direct communication with the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, working to untangle the red tape that is slowing the rescue.
Health concerns over bear bile
Animals Asia is calling on the authorities to act on growing concerns over the safety to consumers of bile taken from such sick bears. The bears’ livers and gall bladders are often severely diseased, the bile contaminated with pus, blood and faeces. A healthy bear’s bile is as fluid as water and ranges in colour from bright yellowy-orange to green. However, Animals Asia’s vets have described bile leaking from the gall bladders of the rescued bears as “black sludge”.
The prized ingredient in bear bile, ursodeoxycholic acid (UDCA), is used by TCM practitioners for a myriad of complaints, everything from hangovers to haemorrhoids. However, UDCA can be synthesised easily under laboratory conditions – the UDCA produced is pure, clean and reliable.
Dr Wang Sheng Xian, a Chengdu pathologist, who is analysing the livers of bears that have died from liver cancer said: “The more I learn about the extraction of bile from bears, the more I would never recommend this kind of drug to my family and friends. I think we are better to use alternative drugs and never extract bile from bears … this kind of drug could be harmful to people. There are many effective and affordable synthetic alternatives as well as more than 50 herbal alternatives.
“Although I respect TCM, what I have seen from the samples from caged bears makes me doubt that products like this work. I think we had better use alternative drugs and never extract bile from bears,” Dr Wang adds.
After examining the gallbladder of one of the Vietnam bears, and concluding that she had “severe chronic cholecystitis [a substantial thickening of the wall of the gall bladder]”, Dr Duong said: “I am wondering how this bear could have survived, because if this were a human sample, the person would have been dead long ago.” The other bears that underwent cholecystectomies had similarly degenerative gall bladders.
Friends… of Food?
Through its “Friends… or Food?” campaign, Animals Asia is finding ways to help end cat-and-dog consumption in Asia. This terrible trade sees millions and millions of dogs and cats, many of them stolen or abandoned pets, endure horrific cruelty and ultimately a brutal death.
Dogs and cats are collected in large numbers by middle-men from villages around the country, crammed onto trucks and transported for several days under hellish conditions to live-animal markets in the south, where they are either electrocuted, beaten to death, strangled, bled out or boiled alive. Often the dogs’ death comes slowly in the misguided belief that their meat will taste better.
But there is hope. There is a new and genuinely pet-loving population emerging in China and dogs and cats are increasingly being recognised as valuable members of society. Changing family demographics, such as childless couples and increasing numbers of older adults living alone, mean that more people are turning to animals for companionship.
Under the umbrella of our “Friends…or Food?” campaign, Animals Asia is working to provide local animal lovers with a platform to stand up and speak out for what they believe in, so that together, we can end dog-and-cat eating from within.
Animals Asia runs a number of other projects, such as Dr Dog, its innovative animal-therapy programme. Dr Dog sees over 300 “dog doctors” visiting hospitals, homes for the elderly, disabled centres and orphanages across Hong Kong, mainland China, the Philippines, Japan, India, Taiwan and Malaysia, and spreading unconditional love and warmth to people in need. The four-legged ambassadors highlight the positive role that companion animals can play in society.
Our volunteer dogs also take on the role of teachers in our “Professor Paws” project. Special hands-on lessons are designed to improve the children’s English-language skills and confidence while encouraging children to care for animals. In late 2008, Animals Asia also launched Professor Paws in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen.
We hope that by promoting love and respect for dogs, the community will come to love all animals.