Dream come true for "Healing without Harm"

Over 250 members of the TCM community in China and across the world joined together in Beijing in the last weekend of November for the “International Symposium for the Conservation of Endangered Species and Traditional Chinese Medicine”. The symposium was sponsored by the American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine (ACTCM) and Animals Asia Foundation, together with the generous help of the Maria Norbury Foundation and Hauser Bears.

The idea for collaboration had originally been discussed between Lixin Huang, President of the ACTCM, and our own US Director, Alice Ng – and it was a dream come true to see this surge of support for the bears by such respected people in the TCM community. Lixin herself made the feelings of her College very clear when we talked together at the Asia Society in San Francisco a few weeks ago. She said: 

“Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) promotes harmony and healing. Using bear bile and endangered species in TCM does not support harmony or healing. Many products containing bear bile are not prescribed or recommended by TCM doctors. We ask bear farmers not to use the excuse of traditional medicine as a reason for farming bears, because we do not need bear bile to save patient lives.”

The gathering saw herbal vendors, practitioners, scholars, government officials and policy-makers from the fields of TCM and environmental conservation. Eighteen leaders from across China were selected by ACTCM to address conservation policy, alternatives to the use of endangered species, as well as specific medicinal species such as bears, pangolin and turtles. 

As I said to Lixin when the conference began, I’ve waited nearly 25 years for this moment – to see experts coming together with the common message that animals should not end their lives to save ours. It was a true celebration of the harmony between animal welfare and Chinese medicine. At this point of course we are focusing on endangered species, but the debate has begun to include all animals and this is the mission of Animals Asia to reach that goal. 

We sponsored three experts in their field to attend this conference, experts with whom we have been working to address the use of, and alternatives to, bear bile, the appalling cancers found in farmed bears, and the ongoing research to find substitutes that are superior to the “real thing". All of these experts support the call that bear farming should end. 

Professor Liu Zheng Cai, a traditional Chinese medicine doctor with whom we’ve been working for many years, was first. With his mix of serious discussion and, occasionally, a wry sense of humour, he had the audience captivated – especially at one point when he pointedly asked: “The bears have cancer themselves, so how can they possibly cure it?!”

Chengdu pathologist Dr Wang Sheng Xian was next, showing the pathology of the liver cancers and compromised gall bladders of bears we have loved and lost. The slides flashed up on the screen showing the tumours found on each bear – every one a number for Dr Wang’s presentation purposes – but every one a friend to us. Hope, Chengdu Truth, Mango, Xiao Hei, Saskia, Kiki, Willow, Fuzzy and, of course No. 1 – Andrew – showing wave after wave of cancers that have invaded and ended the lives of our bears. 

Dr Feng Yibin from the University of Hong Kong School of Chinese Medicine discussed his exciting research with the herb, coptis – funded by Frank Pong Fai and his family and with matching funds from the Hong Kong Government. In his paper, “Research Project on Alternative Drugs or Substitutes for Bear Bile”, Dr Feng demonstrated that his research was rapidly unveiling something which was not just a substitute for bear bile – but better than bear bile. He made clear that the usage of bear bile was a problem of history, culture and economy and was rapidly becoming a political issue too. 

Speaker after speaker followed, endorsing the message from our experts – one professor even boldly claimed that there was no need to cling on to traditional herbs if the synthetic preparations were proven to be equally effective – “Why not introduce these into mainstream medicine too if they can help to save the lives of endangered species?” 

And it was all going so well until Professor Wang Liang Xin from the north of China began his presentation and showed pictures of farmed animals, including bears, while making the astonishing statement that it was fine to consume wildlife, provided that they were farmed. This was perhaps not surprising, given that we found out later that he was from Heilongjiang, where a large number of bears are caged and victimised for the bear bile industry. 

I fumed and thought to myself, how is it that some people lost their humanity to the point that they view farmed animals as “things” to be exploited, and somehow different from their wild counterparts. It was too harrowing to contemplate and I wondered if he had grandchildren who listened to his views, and sadly reflected upon the next generation of his family growing up to hate bears so much that they didn't care if they lay caged and tortured until they died. 

After his presentation, he passed me on the way out and I had to follow him and ask him why. As we spoke, I saw a man with kind eyes who told me that the bear farms in Heilongjiang produced their bile with no harm to the animals concerned. He really believed it was true. Thank goodness for Toby (our Director of External Affairs) who had joined us – he picked up the reigns, and explained in rapid and measured Chinese about the methods of farming and bile extraction, which are extremely painful and compromising to the bears’ health. 

And with that, in a moment of time when everything changed, Professor Wang admitted it must be true, nodding sadly with the realisation. He added thoughtfully that he would like to think of ideas to introduce education programmes to help people understand that they must not treat bears like this. This was an issue of education not money – changing the mindset and persuading farmers that they could not treat animals in this way. 

And with that I felt a huge weight taken away – here was an intelligent, respected professor with a lifelong belief that farming animals of any species was fine, and now his mind was changing fast. 

Lixin Huang then took the stage and asked all in the audience to sign an open letter to bring a “healthier attitude” to TCM practitioners – which broadly meant bringing exploitation to an end. 

At the end of the first day, a student of TCM shyly approached us and held up a slogan he had drawn after hearing the presentations on bear farming. His simple sign, “Save the Bears”, said it all about the growing support within the TCM community for bringing bear farming to an end. 

And, before leaving the conference, Professor Wang Liang Xin approached Toby again asking if he could email him and discuss more ideas to help the bears – and I knew that the message of “healing without harm” will one day prevail.

Here's a pic taken at the symposium of Dr Wang, Dave our Animal Welfare Director, myself, Professor Liu, Professor Feng Yibin and Rainbow Zhu Ke, our China PR and Education Manager.

Please see here for more photos and our report on the symposium.

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