“Someone told me, if you have ever heard the screams of a black bear when it is having bile extracted, it is the most tortured sound you will hear in your life,” noted Jack Ma, founder of the Alibaba Group.
In fact, Ma is petitioning to stop live bile extraction from bears and has banned bear bile products on his e-commerce platforms Alibaba and Taobao.
Ma also plans to start a charity through Taobao dedicated to saving black bears.
The latest campaign against bear-bile extraction began when Guizhentang, a Fujian-based company whose main business is selling bear bile, announced it would be seeking an IPO this year.
The company added that it hopes to raise funds to more than double its bear workforce (if you can call it that) from 470 to 1,200.
The news was soon picked by animal welfare groups, including the Beijing Loving Animals Foundation. Last week it submitted a petition to the Securities Regulatory Commission signed by 72 public figures, including Ding Junhui, a wellknown snooker player and Chen Danqing, a respected painter, objecting to Guizhentang’s IPO plan.
Bear bile is prized in traditional Chinese medicine as an antidote to muscle ache, fever, joint pain, migraine and hangovers. Its proponents even claim it can help with poor eyesight – and Guizhentang identifies bile as the key ingredient in eye drops that the company has been selling for more than 10 years.
But the extraction process is gruesome. Traditionally it involves the insertion of a catheter into the bear’s abdomen, which is then drained periodically. Needless to say, the procedure causes great discomfort and infection.
Anger toward Guizhentang’s IPO plan has also sparked more than 14,000 posts on Sina Weibo, some of which have demanded a boycott of the stock offering. “They have no respect for life, so what does it matter if they have money? Demand laws to protect animals, demand laws to punish those who mistreat them,” one netizen wrote.
But last week Guizhentang fought back, saying that animal rights groups have exaggerated their claims. Company bosses told the China Daily that current extraction methods are “easy and not hurtful”.
Fang Shuting, the head of the China Association of Traditional Chinese Medicine also stood behind the pharmaceutical firm, claiming that the extraction of bile is humane and that the footage seen by netizens of extraction methods dates from more than 20 years ago.
“Collecting bile is like turning on a tap. It’s painless, natural and simple. I didn’t see bears suffering in the process,” Fang told Caijing. “After the bile is extracted, bears can still drink milk and honey and have fun on the farm.”
It all sounds rather idyllic. Perhaps Mr Fang could book himself in for a weekend mini-break.
Others are less convinced. Xie Zhang, an activist from Beijing, countered: “The place is a living hell for those bears. Don’t trust the so-called ‘painless method’ of bile extraction. The hole in the bear’s abdomen that is exposed to the air will inevitably cause pain and lead to infection, which is why bile farmers have to inject a lot of antibiotics.”
In an effort to win the PR war, Guizhentang this week invited 70 journalists to one of its farms. The South China Morning Post noted the bear was silent while the bile was extracted, but said many members of the media remained sceptical.
China has almost 100 bear bile farms with more than 10,200 black bears in captivity, according to the Beijing Loving Animals Foundation.
Nevertheless, the public concern on news of Guizhentang’s bear bile plan does at least reflect wider public interest in animal welfare in China. Animal rights have also gained more attention elsewhere with public figures like basketball star Yao Ming and actress Barbie Hsu speaking out against shark fin consumption, as well as other customs that many view as cruel or endangering species.
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