Tuan Bendixsen is used to seeing animals living in horrible conditions. As the Vietnamese director of Animals Asia, he’s helped rescue hundreds of primates, bears, dogs and cats living in captive and abusive situations.
But he’d never seen anything like the bear bile farm in Buon Ma Thuot City, Vietnam.
Last week, a rescue team led by Animals Asia raided an illegally operated bear bile farm, where six moon bears lived in atrocious conditions.
“We were a bit shocked,” Bendixsen told The Dodo. “It was bad. To be honest, it was the first time I saw anything like this.”
The worst part was the cages. Most bile farmers keep moon bears in steel mesh cages, which is cruel enough. But these bears were kept caged in concrete. Not only could the bears barely see outside their tiny spaces, but they also lived in partial darkness.
“What a hellhole these bears have been in,” Bendixsen said. “They’ve been in isolation, and they can’t see out very well. It’s a concrete den, and they spent years in there.”
Ten years to be exact. That’s how long Bendixsen believes the bears have lived there. The only time the bears would have gotten out of their cages was for the bile extraction process itself. And that certainly wouldn’t have been pleasant for them.
Bile is a digestive juice produced inside a bear’s liver, and stored in the gallbladder. Unfortunately for the bears, their bile is a prized ingredient in Chinese medicine — despite there being synthetic versions available.
The process of extracting bile is incredibly cruel — the farmer will either insert a tube into the bear’s side, or create a permanent wound through which bile can freely flow. This process is painful, and can cause long-term physical and psychological problems for the bears.
Though bear bile farming is actually illegal in Vietnam, and has been since 1997, continued demand for bear bile has kept the industry running. Animals Asia estimates that 1,200 moon bears are currently being farmed for their bile in Vietnam. In China, the problem’s worse — over 10,000 bears are trapped on the farms.
Some progress has been made, although it’s been slow. In 2005, the Vietnamese government started cracking down on bile farms. The government made bile farmers sign declarations saying that they wouldn’t extract bile from bears anymore, but at the same time, they allowed them to hold onto their bears. Now many farmers claim that they’re keeping the bears as “pets,” when what they’re really doing is continuing to run bile farms.
If the Animals Asia team hadn’t gotten a tip-off about the bile farm in Buon Ma Thuot City, it would have been impossible to know what was going on there. “The property was quite big and they had a big gate with a sign that said ‘aggressive dogs,’ which means that people will never step on that property,” Bendixsen said.
When Bendixsen and the rescue team first arrived, they couldn’t see the bears very well inside their dark cages. But when they moved the bears into transport crates, Bendixsen noticed that one of the bears — whom they named Snow — had badly infected feet. Snow’s claws had actually grown into the bear’s paw pads.
“Sometimes it happens because they’re not allowed to roam freely, and scratch on trees and so forth,” Bendixsen explained.
Snow was also missing two thirds of his tongue, the team would later discover. “It is likely to have been bitten off in a fight with another bear,” Mandala Hunter-Ishikawa, senior veterinarian for Animals Asia, said in a press release.
Thankfully, the team managed to rescue all six bears, and drove them 800 miles away to its sanctuary in Tam Dao, Vietnam.
The team named the other fives bears Poe, Cranberry, Winter, Ivy and Bí Xanh, which means “green pumpkin” in Vietnamese.
The bears will have a long recovery period. They need to spend 45 days in quarantine before they can be moved to larger enclosures. And understandably, they’re also quite skittish — especially Cranberry.
“She huffs and launches at you whenever you get near,” Bendixsen said. “We call her Cranky Cranberry. They’re still very wary of humans. You can’t blame them, after what they’ve been through.”
But everything should get better with time.
“Usually in about a week or so, they come around, when they realize that they’re getting nice food and we’re not hurting them,” Bendixsen said.
To help moon bears like Snow and the others who were rescued, you can support Animals Asia by making a donation here.
By The Dodo