Shining a light on bear bile farming

22 May 2014


By Photojournalist Jo-Anne McArthur 

When I found out that a thing called "bear bile farming" existed, it seemed to me that this just could not be. If there were a scale of just how barbaric humans could treat others, this cruelty ranked at the top. I did a lot of research on the topic and also looked around at who was helping these animals. It was then that I discovered Animals Asia, the incredible organization founded by Jill Robinson.

It was important to me to go to Asia and not only document bear bile farming, but to document the great work done by Animals Asia as well, if I would be allowed to do so. Animals Asia graciously allowed me to come along on the rescue of a moon bear named Miracle. Seeing how she existed in a state of living death in that tiny cage for all those years solidified for me that I would do what I could to help her, and others like her, through my work. I've only spent a bit of time with moon bears and sun bears but you learn quickly that they are incredibly sweet, resilient and charming. They deserve to be rescued from these abysmal conditions in which they live. They deserve all the support and care we can give them. It's devastating that bears continue to live this way, and Animals Asia understands the gravity of this emergency. Animals Asia has all of the support and all the cheerleading and help I can muster.

I set out to create the short film, “The Bears” with my best friend and film maker, Karol Orzechowski, because it's one more way of getting the issue of bear bile farming out there. This cruelty needs to be made visible to the world, so that international efforts can support the work of Animals Asia, and the task of putting an end to all bear bile farming. This short film is a great way to get people to see and care.

The Bears - We Animals / Decipher Films from decipher films on Vimeo.

For the making of “The Bears”, I shot stills, we both shot video and he made the film. We loved every moment of being at the Vietnam Bear Rescue Centre, documenting the happier lives that the rescued bear residents have there. The sanctuary was of course in stark contrast to a bear bile farm we visited previously. Seeing the bears living in relative peace at the rescue centre made it clear to us that we needed to contribute to helping the bears that remain on bile farms.

We were heartbroken after filming at the bear bile farm. It's always awful leaving animals behind, knowing we can't save those who are in the cages. But we can help groups like Animals Asia to get those bears out, by supporting their efforts through our own work.

Filming at the sanctuary was thrilling for us both. Thanks to the accommodating rescue centre staff, who were so generous with their time and information, we were able to document the bears in their new spacious habitats, as well as inside the operating room during surgery for one of the bears.

From there, we came home with hours of footage and hundreds of photographs. Karol and I pieced together how we wanted the film to flow, and he set to work. There was a lot of editing and a lot of discussion, tweaking, creating a narrative before we were happy with the final version.

Meeting moon bears in person, seeing their majesty, sweetness and sense of humour, really drives home just how cruel it is to keep them in such cramped confinement, unable to exert any kind of will, unable to be bears. When given the opportunity to be themselves, they climb trees, they pick friends, they explore, they enjoy favourite foods. On farms, they are deprived of absolutely everything and spend years standing or lying in metal cages. They are traumatised, in pain, bored and depressed. Their bodies are abused and broken. Meeting the bears in person really moved Karol and I to act and to help. We hope that when others see "The Bears", this will be their opportunity to meet bears and want to help them as well.

Jo-Anne McArthur is an award-winning photographer who has documented the work of Animals Asia and other animal welfare organizations extensively. Jo-Anne is the creator of the “We Animals” project, documenting the plight of animals on all seven continents for over ten years. Her first book, also entitled “We Animals”, was published by Lantern Books in December 2013. The book includes photographs from Animals Asia’s Vietnam Sanctuary. Jo-Anne is the subject of Canadian filmmaker Liz Marshall’s celebrated documentary “The Ghosts in Our Machine”.

Jo-Anne created the short film “The Bears” with filmmaker Karol Orzechowski, telling the story of the plight of the bears and Animals Asia’s work to save them. Karol’s film, “Maximum Tolerated Dose”, about animals used in research, is available on DVD.