By Linda Weiford, WSU News
PULLMAN, Wash. – A veterinary cardiologist from Washington State University has just returned from an overseas research trip to help determine whether the highly controversial process of “bile milking” Asiatic black bears is damaging their hearts.
“Preliminarily results tell us that the heart problems being diagnosed appear to be linked to the practice of long-term bile farming,” said Lynne Nelson of WSU’s College of Veterinary Medicine.
Nelson, who helps oversee the university’s Bear Research, Education and Conservation Program, is considered an expert on bruin health and physiology.
“What’s happening to these bears’ hearts is not normal,” she said.
Used in traditional Chinese medicine
Asiatic bears – also called moon bears for the crescent of gold or white across their chests – are kept captive at farms in China for the purpose of extracting bile through punctures in their abdomens. Bile is a digestive fluid produced in the liver and stored in the gall bladder. Tapped from bears, it is used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat ailments ranging from muscle aches and fevers to gall stones.
Bile-farming proponents claim the bears are healthy and well treated.
“The process of extracting bear bile is like turning on a tap: natural, easy and without pain,” the chairman of the China Association of Traditional Chinese Medicine, Fang Shuting, said during a 2012 press conference. (http://shanghaiist.com/2012/02/16/bear_bile_companys_public_listing_b.php)
Animal cruelty alleged
But undercover images posted on YouTube and other social media sites reveal bears in cages so small that they can’t stand or turn around. In one image, a technician donning a surgical face mask extracts bile through a catheter inserted into a bear’s abdomen as the bear is forcefully splayed out inside its cage. (http://english.caixin.com/2012-02-20/100358783_1.html)
Animal welfare groups and an increasing number of Chinese citizens voicing protest in the news media and on the Internet say the cruelty of bear-bile farming far outweighs perceived health benefits. Not only is the practice painful, but bears being rescued and relocated to sanctuaries are displaying symptoms of mistreatment, they contend, including rotting teeth, malnourishment, blindness and infections.
What’s more, roughly a quarter of the rescued bears are being diagnosed with serious cardiac ailments such as thickening of the heart walls and enlarged aortic arteries, said Nelson – conditions typically caused by high blood pressure stemming from liver and kidney disease, chronic infection and prolonged stress.
“Some of those bears are dying because their aortas actually rupture,” she said.
She is collaborating with the Hong Kong-based Animals Asia Foundation, whose veterinarians have examined more than 400 bears transported to its two rescue centers, one in China and the other in Vietnam.
Wild bears’ hearts healthier
Agency founder Jill Robinson said roughly 10,000 bears remain captive at farms across China.
“The bear-bile industry insists their bears don’t get sick. That’s just nonsense,” she said, adding that her staff continues to amass data on the physical and mental health of rescued bears.
In the meantime, Nelson is assisting the research team by analyzing wild Asiatic bears in Japan to see if they exhibit the same kind of heart problems seen in the rescued bears. Working with wildlife biologists from the Ibaraki Nature Museum, she performs heart ultrasound exams and draws blood on anesthetized bears laid out on the forest floor.
Having just returned from the first of two field study trips, “I can say with confidence that the hearts of wild Asiatic bears look nothing like those of the same species being rescued from the bile farms,” Nelson said.
She expects the study to be completed within two years.