A make believe tale of an all too true reality: the capture and imprisonment of Moon bears, in the terrible bile farms, still numerous in Southeast Asia (China, Vietnam and Korea).
A tale by Michele Diodati (original Italian title: Travasi di bile), translated into English by James Siddall jr.
Imagine being a beautiful Moon bear, a young three year old male in the prime of life, a giant almost 2 meters tall and weighing in at 180 kilos. Imagine having passed another wonderful day in your favorite bamboo forest, in Sichuan, a large province of continental China. You've played, run around, and frolicked with the other bears until breathless, taken a bath in the streams, routed a beehive and had a fantastic honey feast. You are basically one happy bear, glad to be young, healthy, strong, smart and curious, free to run through your natural habitat.
All that is left is to prepare for the night, finding shelter in a mattress of leaves or the crook of a tree branch, while the sun sets and the crickets start filling the cool air with their evening symphony. You noticed earlier a bushy spot, protected by an overhanging rock, and start out with the quick step and light heart of a carefree bear, already dreaming of a sound night's sleep, readying yourself already for a new day's games and frolic.
The twigs covering the ground crackle and snap under your paws, as you lumber the few meters left to the soft "bed" that awaits you, when suddenly, after another crack of a twig, you hear a hard metallic sound, a new sound. At the same moment, a sharp shock shoots through your hind leg, and you scream from the pain. Something is holding you there and keeping you from running away. Turning to see what is happening, finally you understand, a strange metal tool with sharp teeth has clamped like a giant vise on your left leg, which has been horribly mangled. Blood gushes in pulses as you desperately pull the leg to free it from the jaws. But to no avail: not even the strength of a young male bear can break the chain with which the trap is tied to a large tree, which you certainly can't hope to knock down or uproot.
Trying to overcome the terror and pain, you grasp desperately with your claws at the jaws of the trap, and try to open them and loosen their grip, attempting to free yourself, but it's useless, there's no way to get a grip. Out of stubbornness you struggle to pull your leg out, but only manage to deepen the wounds, wearing on your resistance until the pain, the blood loss, and the fear drag you into a nightmare riddled sleep.
The hours pass. The night passes, and all the next day. Hunger and thirst are added on top of the terrible pain of your wounds, which deepen from each feeble move you make attempting to free yourself. By now, the metal has reached the bone. Luck would have it that the bleeding has almost stopped, thanks to all the licking of the wounds, but the exhaustion and desperation increase with no end in sight. You have never experienced a similar feeling of frustration, of powerlessness.
Suddenly strange odors and unrecognizable sounds reach you from the underbrush. The leaves shift, and in front of you appear a dozen little biped creatures, like you've never seen before, covered in silly looking, lightweight, colorful skins. They don't have any fur, they make funny sounds, and seem threatening. You try to scare them with the little force which remains, but they don't fall for it. They throw a net over you and then tie you up in it like a salami. Finally one of them, you can't imagine how, manages to remove that infernal contraption that held you. You relax for a moment while you watch the little creatures bustle around your wounded leg, scratching their heads and exchanging sounds and gestures. You start to feel almost reassured. Maybe they aren't bad. Maybe now they'll let you go and you'll be able to run and hide in the brush; you'll be able to relax and finally sleep, and wait until your wound heals.
No, you were too hopeful too early. While two of the bipeds hold the wounded leg steady, another biped holds a sharp metal stick and starts shaking it violently just above your knee, until the poor tortured limb comes free and falls off like an old snake skin. The surprise is even stronger than the pain, and your screams are lost in the forest, without raising any reaction from any of the bipeds. They manage a bandage around the stump, and, without giving you anything to eat or drink, tie you, still bound, to a long straight branch which a couple of the bipeds have stripped clean of twigs and leaves; then - three in front and three in back - they lift you from the ground and start carrying you along a path which disappears into the forest.
With your head dangling down backwards, you watch all the places which were familiar to you scroll by upside down: the trees, streams, stones, the high snowcapped mountains in the distance. Something inside of you knows it is the last time you will be seeing all of them. So you take it all in one last time: the sounds, the shapes and colors, the smells of your bamboo forest. You save them forever in your memory, no matter where these creatures may be taking you.
The journey through the woods seems endless. The carriers change off often, rife with exhaustion, while you swing from that branch, dozing off frequently, awakened continuously by the pain of your mutilated leg and a thirst that has become almost unimaginable. It is dark when you reach a clearing. The noisy bipeds release you from the branch and throw you roughly into a contraption, the likes of which you've never seen before; inside it is smooth and cold, and you can't even turn yourself over since you are still bound. After a few minutes you hear a dull roar, like thunder, but nearby and never ending. At the same moment, you feel a constant vibration which shakes the contraption, and you realize that you're moving.
Between bumps and jumps, the hours slip by. You can't even tell if it's night or day outside, while your entire body throbs with pain and exhaustion. When you think you cannot take any more, the roar and the movement stop. After waiting for who knows how long, one of the bipeds opens the doors of the sepulcher in which you find yourself and daylight lashes out at your eyes, which have gotten used to the darkness. In the meanwhile other bipeds struggle to lift you, and panting, dump you to the ground, while some others, a little ways away, are circling around a sort of tiny rectangular den, closed on all its sides by what seem to be many straight branches. It's a cage, and you realize immediately that that is to be your new home.
With quick, precise movements, the bipeds grab you on the ground and drag you towards the cage. The ropes which tie you, the pain and weakness all block you from protesting. The only sound which escapes your throat is a single, long lamentation of pain, almost an invocation, which goes unheard. Now they have lifted you up and deposited you within the cage. One of the bipeds closes the door. Another with a strange mask on his face nears ad starts to pass a pointy tube along the edge of the door where it closes against the cage. The tube suddenly starts spitting out a spray of sparks, and you turn your face the other way, and your breathing belies your fear and shock. After this one has finished, another comes and rattles the door to make sure it is blocked shut.
Finally someone cuts the bonds which imprison you: you can move your front paws, and blood starts circulating again in the sore and prickly limbs. Another one remembers that you are a living being and that you need to eat and drink: through a small opening you are passed a paste of grains, which in other, happier times, you would have refused with disdain. But now is no time for delicacy. You gobble down the slop, and drink the water to the last drop dripping from a tube which someone has slipped through the bars of your cage.
But they lose no time where they have brought you. You haven't even had time to fill yourself up that the bipeds have lifted up your cage, supported by long metal poles, and you're off to someplace else. They take you into a big room cloaked in semidarkness, and you are immediately struck by the odor of other bears and excrement. The bipeds set your cage down in a corner, pull out the poles, and leave. In the midst of an unnatural silence, you look around you and struggle to bring the situation into focus, to familiarize yourself with your new habitat.
To begin with, the "den"; the cage in which you're closed is microscopic: a sort of coffin laid lengthwise on the floor, barely large enough to hold you, your head touching the top and allowing no room for movement. Turning on your side is difficult and tiresome; standing up, even were you to still have both hind legs, would be impossible. The only freedom of movement you have is to be able to stretch your arms outside the cage.
In this uncomfortable position, with your eyes gradually adjusting to the semidarkness, you realize that the large room is filled with cages like yours, laid out in two parallel rows which leave an empty passageway between them. Every cage imprisons a bear. A dull anguish is added to the pain of your mutilated leg, that you begin to cry sobbing softly, until sleep overtakes you.
The following morning you are awakened by horrifying screams of terror. Four bipeds covered by a strange thin white skin are holding down the bear in the next cage with metal sticks, and he is screaming desperately. While the sticks, passed between the cage's bars in front of the neck and chest, pin your neighbor down to the bottom of his cage, one of the bipeds is inserting a tiny object, a syringe, into the hole at the end of a small metal tube, the other end of which is driven into the abdomen of the bear. Inside the syringe a greenish brown liquid begins to appear: it's bile, which is extracted from the bear's gall bladder, which causes infernal suffering to the bear for the whole duration of the operation.
All of the other bears know what awaits them, and scream, banging their heads against the bars, or biting them in a vain attempt to break them, or perhaps only to release some of the repressed rage inside them. The bipeds stop in front of each cage, and every time repeat the same terrible ritual. To "milk" all the bears in the hall takes at least two hours, and it is two hours of terror and suffering for the poor imprisoned animals.
Little by little you realize, as the bipeds run the rounds of the room, that your turn is coming and your heart starts racing out of control when the white covered bipeds stop in front of your cage. The bars slid through the cage have already paralyzed you, and even if they hadn't, you still haven't regained enough strength to hope to stop the torturers. So the same one that inserted the syringe into the tube dangling from the stomachs of the other bears performs a painful incision in your abdomen, and while the blood spurts out and is mopped as best as possible, he inserts a tube, about 20cm (8") long, the same as for the other bears. But the torture doesn't end there. They apply a sort of metal shroud around you, which keeps you from ripping out the newly inserted tube.
It's too much, even for a young and healthy animal. The capture, mutilation, imprisonment, the infection and then the catheter: they all add up and a high fever takes over your body, keeping you for days hanging between life and death. But the strong stuff of bears, the incredible force of your immune system to fight infection, have the better of the illness and little by little you get back on your feet, or as much as you can consider improvement in a bear, healthy or sick that they be, imprisoned in a sort of coffin which inhibits any movement whatsoever.
And so it begins: the longest of periods of constant pain, of unspeakable suffering repeated endlessly, every day of the week, every month of the year. Twice a day, after you have eaten that horrible grainy mush, right when your body needs most to rest for digestion, the biped milkers arrive, immobilize you, and suck out your precious bile, which is accumulating in your gall bladder, and which you bears produce in great quantities, more than any other mammal. The fear and the pain are too great to be described; your desire to eat fades away, knowing what eating anticipates; and you can't digest your food well after the torture, in part due the fact that your insides are burning from the pain of the repeated "milking".
And it's the hours between one milking and the next which are perhaps the scariest, being blocked, immobile, as you are in your coffin, always dirty from your own feces and urine, with the flesh scabbed from immobility and the muscles flaccid and painful, the claws in your remaining hind paw grown unkempt and curled over to the point of drawing blood, since they aren't worn down any longer by contact with the ground. Your memories of the happy life you led in the past, before your capture fade little by little as well, leaving only the limitless anguish of an absurd present, robbing you not only of the possibility of movement and hunting food, but also of whim and sexual desire, of following the seasons and going into hibernation, as you instincts would lead you. But you can survive all this, only because you bears are such exceptionally strong and robust animals, so much so that even a similarly hellish life is unable to kill you, at least physically.
Physically. Yes, because morally you were already dead the day they closed you in that barred coffin. Since then you have felt the rage and desperation grow within you relentlessly, strengthened even more by the rage and desperation of your neighboring cellmates. So you begin doing what the other bears have done before you: you bang your head against the roof of your cage, until you cause festering wounds; you began to bite the bars, and claw your own flesh, and to repeat the same obsessive head movements for hours at a time: left right, right left, the only movement that your imprisonment permits. In other words, you've begun to go crazy.
But the bipeds don't just stand there passively and watch your fits. For some reason which you don't understand, the bipeds need the imprisoned bears to remain alive.
So, after you tried to bite the ones which held you still, and after you hurt yourself biting and scratching against the bars of the cage and against your own flesh, you receive a horrible and unforgettable punishment. They immobilize you, against all your force, and one at a time they splint your legs to a wooden board, and while you are awake and fully conscious, they axe clean off not only the claws, the cause of your wounds and the danger for those watching you, but all your digits; first from your left paw, then the right. You remain appalled and aching, looking at the stubs which spurt blood all around, while a bored biped hastily bandages them after sprinkling a strange powder on the still bleeding wounds. Those little hairless and pallid beings have managed to increase your desperation beyond any limit you previously thought possible.
After a few more days - you have just gotten over the amputation of your fingers - your torturers have reserved a bitter surprise for you. They are no longer willing to risk that you harm the other bipeds nor your yourself by biting. The solution is easy, and as usual cruel. If you were a man, you might imagine what it means to have your canines sawed, without anesthetics, down to the roots. By analogy, you might understand what a bear feels when he has sawed off, without anesthetics, his fangs which are 5 to 7 cm (2-3in) long. But it is what the bipeds do, indifferent to your choked screams, after immobilizing you again and keeping your mouth blocked wide by force, using a bit.
Since then, it is really just a matter of days, months, years, all the same. They have taken away not only your freedom, but the possibility to rebel. Nothing remains but an endless, atrocious wait; an anguish without name that accompanies you day and night, alternated only by relentless pain and relentless terror. Little by little your extraordinary resistance begins to fade. The amount of bile produced by your gall bladder begins to diminish day by day. The milking becomes longer and more painful, and the results less satisfactory for your tormentors.
And so a day dawns when the bipeds lift your cage and carry it into another hall, a sort of humid and abandoned stall, where there are a few empty cages and a couple of other bears, no longer productive, just like you. The days are different than the ones before this: you don't have to bear the milking, but it seems like they purposely forget to bring you food and drink. When they remember you, the meals are small, and the food worse than even before: hunger and thirst begin to torment you as never before. But in all these long years you have learned well what patience is. So you accept this last sufferance.
You are not frightened hardly at all, even when you see the bipeds covered in white coming towards your cage. You don't protest when they immobilize your remaining rear leg, and with a few hacks of an axe chop off your paw with its claws. What ever will they do - you ask yourself - with the paw of and old and sickly bear? The pain is unable to shock you as it once did; you have gotten used to the fear. You remain only surprised that this time they don't even move to cure or bandage the wound, which continues to bleed. Just the same, it is only an academic curiosity, as you really don't care anymore if you die. Really, it would be better to die, you would think were you a man.
You look at the biped in front of you, and you notice in his hands a shiny black metal tube pointed at your head. Then you hear two sharp explosions, that lift you clear off the ground. A sweet fog rolls over you, and you feel neither hunger nor thirst any longer. Bones, muscles and scabs ache no longer. All fear is gone. You quickly slip into a pleasant state of unconsciousness. "How wonderful! Finally, in hibernation, after all this time." And your mind winds itself down and shuts off, to the imagery of your dear bamboo forest. Yes, it must have been those two sudden explosions. Who knows how they managed to evoke memories of many years ago: "there's the stream where I drank and played. There's the tree with the bee's nest; I will really have a honey of a feast when I awake. But I am so sleepy now, I think it's time to sleep."
The story you have just read is not a version of Misery adapted for bears; nor is it an attempt to imitate Stephen King or other masters of horror. Unfortunately, it is only an incomplete tale of some of the things currently happening for real in China, Korea and Viet Nam, to thousands of bears, still imprisoned in the bile farms.
Bear bile is an ancient medication in traditional Chinese medicine. Bile, paws and claws are still in very great demand in Asian markets, and draw prices which can spin your head. Whoever runs one of these farms has profits guaranteed. Once word of the profits started spreading, many jumped on the bandwagon, and since the 90s bile extraction has increased so much that it exceeds market demand. In order to avoid wasting this precious raw material, it is now used in the production of shampoos, lotions and creams.
You can imagine the terrible crime committed by extracting, through the tremendous suffering of these poor animals, a product which ends up being used in a shampoo or scented candle! What's more, scientific research has shown that at least 50 herbal extracts exist which have the same curative effect as bear bile, used usual as an anti inflammatory. Really, all the motives are in place to banish this barbaric industry once and for all. The real difficulty, at this point, is to diminish demand, showing the world the tragedy of the "bile farm" bears, and wake up people to this tragedy.
Jill Robinson, a courageous English woman, has been fighting with all her energies for this cause since 1993. She has managed, through her Animals Asia Foundation, to sensitize the Chinese government and media, who now support her battle. Thanks to donations from all over the world, she has created, in Chengdu, China, a sanctuary for the bears recovered from the bile farms, and paying the individual farmers compensation, is, little by little, moving ahead with her ambitious project of freeing 500 bears (at the moment of this writing she has reached number 198).
But it is not easy work at all. The freed bears arrive to the sanctuary in pitious condition. Some die of tumors and some of other diseases, while others remain terribly maimed and wounded. The bears require extensive and costly veterinary treatment, as well as constant care. Even when the bear heals completely, as many do, the bears still are unable to hunt and fend for themselves due to the long period of detention.
It is also important to remember that even if Jill Robinson achieves her goal of liberating 500 bears, there will remain even more in the bile farms. It is estimated that from 7000 to 10000 bears remain imprisoned and tortured. Even were it possible to liberate all of them, the immense problem of healing them and caring for them would remain, since they could not be freed to their natural habitats. It is also difficult to overcome the absurd superstitions which form the base for some of the torture inflicted upon the bears, such as one which holds that amputation of paws and claws must be done while the poor bear is still alive and conscious, if you want to maintain the curative powers.
At Jill Robinson's site there is ample information about how you, even from Europe, can help her efforts. I hope that this small contribution of mine can spread knowledge of this unknown tragedy of the bears used for bile farming, and to stimulate the desire of reader to lend concrete help, until it is possible to finally say "Stop" to the torture of these amazing animals.