Urbanist Hanoi

BackSociety » Environment » The Delicate Process of Helping Bears Recover From Trauma

The Delicate Process of Helping Bears Recover From Trauma

Bear bile farms, which exist in some Asian countries like Vietnam and China, are a terrible reality for Asiatic black bears (Ursus thibetanus).

 The bears spend their lives confined in tiny steel or concrete cages. They are “milked” through permanent holes in their side that allow bile to be extracted from the gall bladder.

My research, published in the journal Animal Welfare, investigated the chronic stress created by these conditions. We found that with care and rehabilitation, rescued bears in animal sanctuaries can readjust to a normal lifestyle with a reduction in stress – a highly encouraging result.

What's so precious about bile?

Bile is a greenish-brown fluid produced by the liver in humans and most vertebrates. Bile acid aids digestion of fats – and one particular bile compound, called ursodeoxycholic acid, could have potential pharmaceutical applications.

Because of this, bear bile is highly sought in ursodeoxycholic acid. It is believed to reduce gall stones and improve indigestion, among other things. However, non-animal-derived and synthetic alternatives exist for ursodeoxycholic acid and other bile components.

The use of Asiatic black bears as primary sources of bile is a significant animal welfare problem that needs global awareness. Most of the bears are introduced to the trade upon poaching from the wild, and cubs as young as a few months are caged and held captive for up to 30 years.

I worked with the international welfare organization AnimalsAsia, which runs rescue and rehabilitation programs in Asia and has moved hundreds of bears into sanctuaries.

My research investigated how successful this rehabilitation is, and whether rescued bears can recover from their experiences.

Animal Cruelty Creates Chronic Stress

Stress is defined as any unpleasant physical or psychological change that creates an uncomfortable feeling and negative outcome.

Not surprisingly, bears at bile farms in Vietnam have significantly higher levels of stress hormones than bears living in sanctuaries. This is the first scientific evidence of the chronic stress created by bear bile farming.

A young cub rescued from a bile farm in Vietnam (where the practice is illegal although widespread). ANIMALS ASIA FOUNDATION/AAP

Stress in vertebrates (like humans and bears) is a physiological response in the endocrine system, also known as the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis. This is the body’s main control center for all things related to stress.

Stress hormones like cortisol help regulate the metabolism, especially in times of short-term or acute stress such as “fight or flight” situations. In normal situations, sharp stress causes an increase of cortisol that allows an animal to react quickly to a dangerous situation. Once the danger passes, a negative feedback loop reduces cortisol production and keeps the body stable.

But chronic stress can lead to harmful changes in the stress endocrine system. Long-term cortisol overproduction weakens the body’s ability to fend off daily challenges, and increases the risk of disease and death. In humans, chronic stress contributes to problems with the cardiovascular, immune and central nervous systems.

The presence of what we call “stress biomarkers” in feces or hair can be a very useful tool for assessing animal welfare.

We measured cortisol levels in bear feces to rapidly and reliably check their stress levels.

This was particularly useful because we did not have to restrain the rescued bears, a process that would understandably upset them more than their peers.

Australian vets care for rescued bear Luca. Luca’s gall bladder, damaged after years of being pierced with a long needle for bile extraction, had been previously removed. BARBARA WALTON/AAP

Reversing chronic stress in bear sanctuaries

Chronic stress is a massive challenge for the successful rehabilitation of animals into their new environment. Careful monitoring of stress is essential in animal rescue and translocation programs because it can provide information on the physiological resilience of each animal, and help rescuers understand how the animals might respond to humane interventions and veterinary checks.

Rescued bears are given special veterinary care and integrated into the bear sanctuary after several months of careful physiological and behavioral assessments.

Our data show that although not all bears fully recover from living on a bile farm, they generally manage to reduce their stress hormone levels under the rehabilitation program.

Like humans, animals need love and careStress research has shown humane treatment can reverse chronic stress – and our study has found that is true even for animals who have experienced intolerable treatment.

This story first appeared on The Conversation. The original report can be accessed here.


Related Articles:

Vietnamese Bile Farms Are Collapsing, Yet Bears Continue to Face Neglect

Tam Dao's Bear Sanctuary and the Fight Against Bile Farms

[Photos] Inside Cat Tien National Park's New Bear Sanctuary Made From Wire and Pebbles


Related Articles

in Environment

As Interest in Bile Wanes, Rights Groups Rush to Save Remaining Captive Bears

Vietnam’s interest in bear bile is waning, a positive sign signaling the end of the country’s scores of bear farms. However, conservationists are faced with a brand-new set of problems: how to save th...

in Environment

Being Human: How Can We Cope With Climate Change Grief?

Urbanist Hanoi is proud to announce ‘Being Human,’ our new series dedicated to mental health.

in Environment

Both Hanoi and Saigon Will Face Extensive Flooding by 2050, New Data Shows

A new research paper from Climate Central reveals an even more harrowing future for coastal cities around the world, including in Vietnam, compared to previous predictions.

in Environment

Climate Change Is Forcing People Out of the Mekong Delta

The Vietnamese Mekong Delta is one of Earth’s most agriculturally productive regions and is of global importance for its exports of rice, shrimp, and fruit. The 18m inhabitants of this low-lying river...

in Environment

Coffee Production in Vietnam Faces Dark Future Under Climate Change

Rising temperatures and shifting rainfall patterns may cost Vietnam 50% of its current Robusta coffee production areas by 2050. Experts agree the situation looks dire, but there is hope that the count...

in Environment

Dong Thap's Number of Sarus Cranes Has Shrunk by 100 Times Since 1998

Tram Chim National Park in Dong Thap Province is a wetland area reserved for a waterfowl habitat under the Ramsar Convention.