Bear Abused for Bile Extraction Rescued After Being Kept in Small Cage

Animal welfare activists in Vietnam have rescued a female Asiatic black bear that was being kept in a small cage and had previously been abused for "painful" bile extraction.

Global non-profit Four Paws rescued the bear on December 11 from a backyard in Son La province, in the northwest of the country, and brought her to a bear sanctuary in Ninh Bình, on Vietnam's eastern edge, according to a statement.

The non-profit said the 21-year-old bear, named Tu Do, was the last bear that had been used for bile extraction in Son La. She was also the 50th bear rescued by the organization in the country over the course of 20 rescue missions.

Most of the bears were rescued from dedicated bile farms but Four Paws also freed some from wildlife traffickers.

"The rescue of Tu Do went very smoothly. When we arrived she was calm, friendly, and curious. She's a very small bear and a little underweight," Emily Lloyd, an animal manager at the bear sanctuary in Ninh Bình, said in a statement.

Veterinarians checked the bear and found that she had gallstones. This means she will need surgery to remover her gallbladder in the future. Tu Do is also suffering from moderate liver and dental disease.

"We will now provide dedicated care for her and begin her rehabilitation to a better life," Lloyd said.

According to Hong Kong-based charity Animals Asia Foundation, bear bile has been used in traditional Asian medicine for thousands of years.

In the 1980s, the practice of farming bears to extract their bile spread across the continent. Now there are at least 10,000 bears being kept for this purpose despite the fact that herbal and synthetic alternatives with the same properties are available.

According to the charity, the extraction of bear bile from living bears causes "unimaginable physical and psychological suffering and long-term health problems." Several extraction techniques exist, all of which are invasive and traumatic.

Most bears on bile farms live in tiny cages in unhygienic conditions and they often suffer from poor health. Many owners starve them and allow the animals to become dehydrated because this can encourage bile production.

Vietnam has banned the sale and possession of bear bile but the practice has persisted because of legal loopholes and continued demand.

Four Paws said there were still more than 300 bears continuing to suffer in the country's bear farms, with the capital Hanoi remaining a hotspot.

"Many provinces have been working hard to end bear farming, but Hanoi province has shown only very little improvement, reflecting poorly upon overall efforts of the government," Barbara van Genne from Four Paws said in a statement. "We urge the government to do everything in its power to reach their goal of ending bear farming for good by 2025."

While the Vietnamese outlawed bear bile farming in 2005, it is still legal for farmers to keep the bears already on farms as "pets"—this loophole provides cover for illegal bile production, according to non-profit World Animal Protection.

Farmers don't usually admit to extracting bile illegally. Often they are attached to their bears and treat them as pets, and don't want to give them up.

Liz Cabrera Holtz from World Animal Protection U.S. told Newsweek: "Usually kept in barren cages not much larger than a phone booth and without natural sunlight, bears used for their bile suffer severe psychological and physical stress.

"Bear bile farms don't exist in the U.S., but illegal sales of bear bile products in stores persist—as our 2020 undercover investigation in New York City revealed. We call on the Vietnamese government to close the remaining legal loopholes to end the cruel practice of bear bile farming forever."

According to a Four Paws spokesperson, Tu Do likely spent all her time in the tiny cage she was rescued from.

"This means she never got to know what a species-appropriate bear life looks like and never could live out her natural behaviors," the spokesperson, Katharina Braun, told Newsweek.

"Almost all bears living on farms were poached, which means they were taken from the wild. This usually involves the female mother bears being killed so that cubs can easily be taken. The first months of their lives the cubs are often used as pets or toys. After they become older and bigger and more dangerous they end up in bear farms."

Braun added: "Inappropriate keeping conditions, diet and exercise depravation contributes to mobility problems, wasted muscles and obesity. Moreover, the unstimulating environment, the confined space and mistreatment leads to behavioral disorders, often seen in animals in bad captive settings. Due to boredom and escape attempts the bears also often chew on their cage bars, which result in broken and damaged teeth."

Update 12/17/21, 9:45 a.m. ET: This article was updated to add comments from World Animal Protection and Four Paws.

Rescued bear Tu Do
Rescue of the bear Tu Do from from a bear bile farm in Son La Province, Vietnam, on December 11. © Hoang Le I FOUR PAWS