South Korean Olympic officials are using the local bear as a symbol for upcoming winter games–but some never leave their cages and are slaughtered for their gall bladders and the bile that is believed to be a health aide.
Update 2016: “Bear Farming” involves locking bears in tiny cages for repeated sessions of painful, invasive extractions of their bile. It has become a regular practice in certain Asian countries, especially China. Now Laos is becoming a relatively new hot spot for bear farming.This National Geographic report looks at a trend it calls “disturbing.”
Set Free the Bears?
When it comes to the humane treatment of farm animals, I never thought much about bears. They seemed to be busy catching salmon in streams, scaring hikers on paths, or preventing forest fires. They occasionally sneak into a Florida backyard hammock, but why not—frightening tourists and retirees can be tiring.
Another bear recently took police officers on an hours-long chase around the streets of downtown Anchorage, Alaska.
So when I saw the term “milking bears,” it seemed humorous until I discovered it actually refers to the process involved with extracting bile from live bears—sometimes as often as three times a day. For centuries bile from their livers has been used as a traditional medicine, especially in China. Some believe it shrinks gallstones, reduces fevers, and possibly cures hangovers.
I had a close encounter with a bear in a cage many years ago when I lived in west Tokyo. While jogging one summer evening, I crossed the Nogawa River, turned onto a narrow dark street, and passed a restaurant that clung to the side of a steep hill. Its large black and white sign stood high and glowing in the night air. I could read the kanji for Hokkaido, the northern most island of Japan, and I picked out a few other symbols that convinced me it was an eating place, even though the wooden façade at street level did not advertise or display the usual plastic food samples in a glass window to entice customers.
I was fifty feet past the restaurant when I heard a movement in the shadows on my right. I flinched a bit, stopped, and listened to chains clinking and big feet shuffling. As my eyes adjusted, I saw that the rocks of the hillside—reinforced with concrete—framed an opening that held a small cage. Inside, with the dim street lights casting striped shadows, a bear swayed nervously—not loud or violent, just pathetic.
I looked at small desperate eyes in the cage, then back up to the restaurant sign that portrayed several animal silhouettes, including a bear. I knew bear meat was available in Hokkaido and assumed they transported bears to this tiny cage where they would then be butchered for the patrons. The breeze shifted a bit, and I caught a whiff of fear and feces.
I saw a bear there another time or two. I’d jog by in the night, see a shadow, and sense the fear. The following year I stopped there in daylight and saw only a concrete slab—the bars had been removed and the blood hosed out. The entire structure was dismantled soon after.
I imagine some folks have their opinions about why bears make good medicine or meat, but it seems degrading for such a wild spirited beast. Maybe we could figure out less unbearable ways to treat fevers and cure hangovers.
by dan gogerty (top photo from newsdesk.si.edu; bottom photo from rendezvous.blogs.nytimes.com; note–Set Free the Bears is the title of John Irving’s first novel)