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  • Writer's pictureKate Fox

The Animal Welfare Anomaly - why the illegal trade in bears is winning.

Updated: May 19, 2019

On the global stage of concerns, conservation has rightfully become a prominent actor, taking front row amongst the clamouring mob of the disadvantaged. Its relative success has enabled a growing body of policies and legislation with statutory and voluntary agreements echoing loudly in the halls of power. Perhaps driven by a sense of realisation that without it, biodiversity loss would be in free fall, taking humanity with it as it nears its ultimate conclusion. Conservation has consequently become a respectable main stream issue.

Conversely, animal welfare remains one of society's second class citizens. Publicly extolling the virtues of this issue will undoubtedly see you pigeoned into a kooky social minority. At worst, being seen as a potentially seditious subset of people prone to insurrection. Paradoxically, those not supporting the animal welfare of domestic pets could be classified as degenerates! Outside this remit, animal welfare acceptability is a size game. The smaller the animal, the less likely you are to be valued or considered sentient.

Such conflicting and confused approaches to animal welfare are undoubtedly shaped by our values. Supporting it threatens the accepted rhetoric of factory farming and this underpins a large part of society. Put simply, attributing animal sentience beyond the pet realm is not in our interests. Although people find animal cruelty distressing, the out of sight, out of mind tactic is successful. If factory farms had glass walls and were placed in our shopping malls the numbers of vegetarians would escalate rapidly. This is why the rural urban divide has become so instrumental in shaping our confused approach to animal welfare.

The Asiatic Black Bear is one creature that has fallen victim to this perverse way of thinking. Despite Vietnam's population crashing by >60% in 30 years and being listed on CITES Appendix I, it has failed to raise a conservational eyebrow. Its inability to compete with the elephant, rhino and pangolin story seems stranger still when one realises how the teddy bear has shaped many of our childhood memories. One key difference, however, is that elephants, rhinos and pangolins are killed in the wild whereas bears in Vietnam are poached from the wild and transferred to illegal bile farms.

It is the emotive animal welfare issues associated with their captivity that have overshadowed this conservation disaster and helped condemn the bear bile industry to a prolonged existence. Dr Johanna Painer, a Four Paws rescue vet from Vetmeduni Vienna, believes there are few species that could tolerate "such appalling conditions." Despite being locked in small cages in breathtakingly hot rooms she reveals few have drunk water, relying on their daily sloppy gruel for fluids. With a 2018 paper called The Challenges and Conservation Implication of Bear Bile Farming in Vietnam uncovering that farmers are now spending 87% less on food, this puts bears in serious jeopardy.

When bears don't drink enough water, their metabolism switches to hibernation mode, and rather like camels, they tend to lay down fat reserves. These are then broken down later to release water. This fools the untrained eye into believing captive bile bears are well fed. Ironically, Dr Painer reveals that "they produce more of the bile liquid when hungry. This means starving bears will produce more money than well fed bears....up to a point."

The starchy nature of this sloppy gruel causes plaque to build up on their teeth and with no access to hard food, can lead to excruciatingly painful dental problems. These intelligent, sentient mammals are often seen rocking back and forth in their cages. This stereotypical swaying and self-harming is often associated with emotional trauma but also helps to provide distraction from physical pain. Dr Johanna Painer states that it releases endorphins in the brain that provide comfort.

Slideshow showing sloppy gruel at illegal farms, the dental damage it causes and their natural diet provided at bear sanctuaries.

Bear bile is stored in the gall bladder and contains ursodeoxycholic acid, an ingredient that has long been prized in Traditional Asian Medicine for curing a multitude of unrelated ailments from seizures, to bruises to gall stones. To extract bile, the bear needs to be anaesthetised. Laid on their backs, an ultra-sound machine is used to locate the gall bladder and then a long needle must be carefully inserted to extract the thick dark brown liquid.

Unsurprisingly, with the illegal nature of bear bile farming, there are no bile extraction training courses. Illegal wildlife farmers have to learn on the job and for those bears lucky enough to survive this steep learning curve, "they are kept alive with antibiotics." Dr Johanna Painer reveals that empty antibiotic bottles are a telltale sign that bear owners are extracting bile. Ironically it is these extreme animal welfare conditions that perpetuate the conservation disaster. Breeding in such appalling conditions is impossible and farms are forced to restock from the wild.

Unfortunately, it is the success of the animal welfare story that holds the Asiatic Black bear back from achieving its conservation potential. They rely on the support from passionate NGOs and their dedicated staff. As for legislation, well, even the UK has fought to keep the concept of animal sentience a recognised term. Hidden in the shadow of the animal welfare discourse, fighting to be taken seriously remains an uphill struggle. Solutions are not for organisations to hide from the animal welfare issues, but for the mainstream media to attribute this the attention it deserves.

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