Boris Chiao: Blueprint for a bile-free future

24 April 2014


Boris Chiao is the man charged with overseeing the conversion of the Nanning bear bile farm to Animals Asia’s third sanctuary.

As Project Director, he and his three-man team will have overall responsibility for the construction of the facility.  What they build over the next two years will change the lives of nearly 100 resident bears and potentially set a blueprint for other farms to follow as they look for ways out of a declining industry. 

What needs to be done at the Nanning site?

My goals are to provide a usable facility that is safe for both people and animals and takes into account the welfare of the animals. I have to take into consideration every piece of existing construction, mechanisms and pipes and ask – how can I achieve those goals with this?

You’ve been building and maintaining bear sanctuaries since 1995 – how different is a transformation to a completely new build?

When people build bear farms, they don’t have animal welfare concepts in mind, they just build a facility to hold the animal. We know the requirements and what we have to achieve so the question is how can we utilise what’s available to make it work. Transforming a farm into a sanctuary isn’t so different to building one but it’s definitely easier to build something from scratch.

With a building, what you see is only part of the story – 30% is actually under ground like the water, drainage and foundations. If you want to change the location of something like a floor drain, it isn’t so easy to convert because you have to rip out the floor and see if the gradients work. Generally costs are higher when converting old buildings too.

Who do you need to work with to make this a reality?

Everything that I do is supporting the bear and vet team. Due to long experience, I know much of what they want and what is acceptable. Nowadays I make a proposal with my team, which I present, to the bear and vet team. They feedback their suggestions and we arrive at a final design.

Does working in Nanning present any particular challenges?

My team doesn’t have experience of working in Nanning province. I’ll have to bring my team to Nanning to work with a new contractor with no experience of the standards that Animals Asia expects.

Ever since I started on bear sanctuary construction I realised that everybody – from design to construction to on site management – everyone looks at the drawings and says “piece of cake”. Then they get involved and start saying, “wow”.

For example, there is a lot of metal work in our designs, which most welders and companies assume is spot-weld but is actually full-weld. That changes the complexion of the whole project already. Labour costs, inspection procedures – they all change.

Our methods are more rigorous as well. We don’t allow the contractor to just start welding anywhere – everything is inspected daily. They have to give us a daily and a weekly plan to show for example how many doors they will weld. We can’t afford to miss one weld and have a bear escape – that is just not acceptable.

Basically contractors don’t realise how hard the project is, they think it’ll take three months, but six months later they’re still working – because they underestimate the standards required.

Do you personally take satisfaction from the projects you oversee?

I‘m never happy with it – that’s just me. I’ll look at it for problems, think how to make it better – it’s a habit. If I look hard enough I can find things I could’ve done better – this isn’t straight or that is rusting – it’s all experience to carry to the next project.

As a co-founder of Animals Asia Boris Chiao has worked with the organisation since it was set up over 15 years ago.