years ago this April, Jill Robinson first walked onto a bear bile farm. On that day in April 1993, Jill could have walked away, but she chose to act and do what she could. Today, you also have a choice. If everyone reading this donated just US$20, it would pay for the care of over 150 bears at our China sanctuary for a full year. Please help us celebrate 20 years of progress. Donate US$20 today (or whatever you can afford).
Surgical castration of male bears at Animals Asia Foundation facilities
The purpose of Animals Asia's moon bear sanctuaries
Animals Asia has established two bear sanctuaries, one near Chengdu in China, which was opened in 2000, and one at Tam Dao National Park near Hanoi in Vietnam, which opened in 2007. These sanctuaries were established in agreement with government authorities in the two countries, specifically to house bears rescued from bile farms. Most of the bears at the sanctuaries are Asiatic black bears, or moon bears (Ursus thibetanus). As of November 2010, the Chengdu sanctuary is home to more than 170 bears; the Vietnam sanctuary houses over 60.
The purpose of the sanctuaries is to provide lifelong care for bears originating from bear farms.
These bears are afforded the best medical and surgical attention by our veterinary teams, in order to
try to repair some of the damage done by the process of bile extraction. Some of the bears that
arrive at our sanctuaries do not survive, as a result of the long-term damage done by repeated bile
extraction, inadequate and inappropriate housing and poor nutrition. The majority of those that do
survive have long-term medical and behavioural problems.
The sanctuaries aim to return these bears to physical and psychological health as far as possible
using the most up-to-date medical and surgical techniques and high-quality nutrition, and to provide
them with the best possible living conditions and enrichment, so that they can act as ambassadors in
our efforts to end the cruel and unnecessary process of bile farming.
So why aren't the bears released into the wild?
Successful reintroduction programmes for large mammals are few and far between. Studies show
that the most successful reintroductions of large carnivores involve the use of animals that were
born in the wild and learned the skills they need to survive from their parents, before being brought
into captivity. The release of captive-born animals, or animals that have been held in captivity for
long periods before release, results in much poorer survival (see Griffith et al 1989, Fischer &
Lindenmayer 2000, Jule et al 2008). The major factors responsible for this are thought to be lack of
learned foraging/hunting skills, accustomisation towards humans, which can lead to conflicts with
human populations following release, and lack of immunity to various natural diseases (Jule et al
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Guidelines for the Placement of
Confiscated Animals (2000) states the following:
“Returning confiscated animals to the wild is often considered the most popular option for a
confiscating agency and can garner strong public support. However, such action poses real risks
and problems and generally confers few benefits. These risks and problems include, but are not
limited to, the following.
1. The mortality of animals released from captivity is usually high. Confiscated mammals and birds
captured as juveniles have not learned the skills they need to survive in the wild. Other animals may
be weakened or otherwise affected by their time in captivity and, thus, less able to survive. Finally,
there is little chance of survival if the animals are released at a site that is not appropriate for the
ecology or behavior of the species.
2. Animals released into the wild outside of their natural range – if they survive at all – have the
potential to become pests or invasive. The effects of invasive alien species are a major cause of
biodiversity loss, as such species compete with native species and in other ways compromise the
ecological integrity of the habitats in which they have become established.
3. Having been in trade or a holding facility often in association with other wild animals and, in
some instances, domesticated ones, confiscated wild animals are likely to have been exposed to
diseases and parasites. If returned to the wild, these animals may infect other wild animals, thus
causing serious, and potentially irreversible, problems.
4. In many instances, confiscated wild animals have been moved great distances from the site of
capture and changed hands several times, such that their actual provenance is unknown. It may,
therefore, be impossible or very difficult to establish an appropriate site for return to the wild that
takes into account the ecological needs of the species, the animals’ genetic make-up, and other
attributes that are important to minimize risks (e.g., competition, hybridization) to wild populations
at a release site.
5. in cases where the provenance is known, the ecological niche vacated by that animal may already
be filled by other individuals and replacing the animal could result in further undesired disturbance
of the ecosystem
6. Responsible programs to return animals to the wild (c.f. IUCN 1998) are long-term endeavors
that require substantial human and financial resources; hence, they can divert scarce resources
away from other more effective conservation activities.”
The bears arriving at our sanctuaries have been exposed to practices resulting in varying degrees of
physical and psychological damage, which makes them even less suitable candidates for release into
the wild (see points 1 and 3 above).
Why not allow the bears to breed then release the cubs?
Allowing our bears to breed at our sanctuaries would result in the production of cubs that would
again be poor candidates for release since bears learn much of the skills they need for survival in the
wild from their mothers during the first two to three years of life (Gilbert 1999), and our sanctuaries
cannot provide an environment in which this process could take place effectively. In addition, the
would-be mothers of these cubs are bears from bile farms, which, as already stated, have suffered
physical and psychological damage and have not developed their own survival skills; their ability to
successfully mother cubs for wild release is therefore severely compromised.
Cubs born within the sanctuaries would therefore require lifelong captive care, reducing the space,
resources and facilities available for rescued bears from farms, thereby compromising the main
purpose of the sanctuaries.
So how are bears at Animals Asia Foundation managed?
In order to enable the best use of space at our sanctuaries, and give the bears the best possible living
conditions, the rehabilitation process involves socialisation of the bears into groups of around 20.
This is not a natural situation for bears, which are on the whole solitary creatures in the wild, and
requires careful consideration of such factors as group dynamics, levels of disability, age, history
and so on.
Successful introduction of bears into groups brings benefits beyond simply enabling us to better use our
resources; socialisation can be a significant source of enrichment for the bears. However, responsible
management of this process, alongside our commitment to care for the bears for the remainder of
their lives, requires us to prevent accidental breeding, and take all possible measures to reduce potential aggression between bears,
which could otherwise result in injury and even death. This is best achieved by surgically castrating
the male bears soon after they arrive at the sanctuaries.
What is surgical castration?
Surgical castration is the physical
removal of both testicles from a
male animal. The testicles produce
the hormone testosterone, which is
responsible for regulating male
reproductive physiology and
behaviour. They also produce the
male gametes, spermatozoa, which
fertilise eggs from the female
What effect does surgical castration have?
Surgical castration removes the source of spermatozoa, which prevents the male animal from
breeding. Surgical castration also removes the source of testosterone, which results in the inhibition
of development of secondary male sexual characteristics if carried out prior to puberty, and the
reduction or inhibition of reproductive behaviours (such as territorial behaviour, aggression and
infanticide) in adult animals.
Following surgical castration, spermatozoa can survive in the remaining ducts for a period of time
(up to 65 days in dogs), so males and females have to be kept apart for a time following castration,
in order to prevent accidental breeding.
Why target the males?
Castration of male bears is a simpler, safer, less invasive procedure than surgical neutering of
female bears. In addition, surgical castration of males has the benefit of reducing aggressive
behaviours, which as outlined above greatly facilitates the management of bears in social groups.
How is surgical castration carried out?
All surgical procedures on bears at Animals
Asia's sanctuaries are carried out by Animals
Asia's highly qualified and experienced
veterinary staff, in purpose-built facilities
using the most up-to-date methods of
anaesthesia, surgery, asepsis, post-surgical
care and pain relief.
Are alternatives available?
Various products are available for long-term
contraception in animals (such as progestins,
immunocontraceptives, and GnRH agonists).
While licences have been obtained for a
number of products for use in domesticated species, none are licensed for wild species, and
although some have been successfully used in eg, big cats in zoos, these products have not been
extensively tested on bears. Various side effects are known to occur following long-term use of
some contraceptive agents in some animals.
Contraceptive agents are normally targeted at female animals. Targeting females does not target the
problem of aggression among male bears. In addition, repeated administration of contraceptive
agents requires repeated anaesthesia in wild animals, whereas castration requires only a single
anaesthetic and can be carried out during the bear’s health-check following arrival at the sanctuary.
Once a safe, reliable non-surgical method of controlling both reproduction and potentially
problematic associated behaviour becomes available, Animals Asia will give all due consideration
to its use. Until then, surgical castration remains the safest and most effective method of achieving
the requirements of the sanctuaries.
Fischer, J. & Lindenmayer, D.B. (2000) An assessment of the published results of animal
relocations. Biological conservation 96 (1), 1-11
Gilbert, B.K. (1999) Opportunities for social learning in bears. In Box, H.O. & Gibson, K.R. (eds)
Mammalian social learning: comparative and ecological perspectives. P 225-235. Cambridge