It was the eyes that did it. Those limpid black pools, pleading and frightened, with what appeared to be tears trickling down his adorable furry face. I tried not to focus on the breaking headlines beaming out of my television that particular lunchtime in August 1993, but as I retreated to the kitchen to make a cup of tea, the accompanying voiceover penetrated the walls.
‘Bears tortured for their bile – horrific images coming out of China,’ the newsreader said. ‘Be watching tonight for more on this cruel, unnecessary practice.’
Well, I won’t be doing that, I thought to myself. Much as I detested cruelty to animals, this was something I didn’t need to see.
Later that evening, my 28-year-old son Simon had settled down to watch TV while I cooked dinner. ‘Mum, you should come and watch this,’ he called out to me. ‘You have to see this bear.’ ‘No I don’t!’ I yelled back, immediately knowing what he was referring to.
‘Oh yes you do,’ he insisted, appearing by my side and dragging me by the arm into the lounge room.
There they were again – the saddest eyes in the world. The image made me sick to the stomach, seeing this beautiful, pathetic creature clinging to the bars of a cage no bigger than a coffin, rocking from side to side. Groaning with pain, he banged his head on the bars, then chewed his paw in frustration. Tears welled in my eyes as I learned that this animal wasn’t alone in his suffering – thousands of bears were being held throughout Asia in horrifying conditions, regularly milked for their bile to meet the demand for bear bile used in traditional medicine.
‘What are you going to do about this, Mum?’ Simon asked.
I looked at him incredulously. Me? What could I possibly do? I wasn’t a wildlife campaigner! Besides, China might as well have been on the moon, it seemed so far away.
‘Absolutely nothing. What can I do?’ I said.
The truth was, being a busy mother living in Perth, I didn’t believe my opinion on something like this would matter. I’ve never been a particularly political creature or an activist of any kind. And while I’d always been an animal lover – growing up in England, my family loved their cats and dogs to the point where they sat on the settee and we sat on the floor – I’d never participated in any demonstrations for animal rights.
But the suffering I’d witnessed on the television disturbed me more than anything I could remember. I found it incredible that animals were being tortured this way. I always imagined that bears, like lions and tigers, were happily roaming the jungles or forests.
That night, the image of the moaning bear continued to haunt me, even in my dreams. I woke up around 2 a.m., unable to return to sleep. I knew I had to help, but I had no idea how.
First, I needed more information. What were these bile farms, and what exactly was the bile used for?
The following morning, I decided to ring the Sydney office of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), who had released the footage I’d seen on TV. They informed me there were about 10,000 Asiatic black bears kept in farms across China, and that there were also a smaller number of farms in Vietnam and Laos.
I learned the bears are kept in battery farm conditions in dark, miserable rooms, locked in extraction cages where they are unable to stand or even move. There is just enough space for them to put their paws out to hook in scraps of food, which are kept to a minimum as lack of food and water helps produce more bile.
Most of these bears wear an iron corset around their middle, covering a crude tap inserted into the abdomen, through the stomach wall and into the gall bladder. The bile is drained as it is produced – an excruciating process that causes the bear to moan and writhe in agony. The pain and inflammation caused by the wound – deliberately left open – is likened to cystic fibrosis in humans.
I wondered why bears were made to endure this torture, rather than any other animal. Apparently, bear bile contains large quantities of ursodeoxycholic acid (UDCA), the active ingredient used in the non-surgical treatment of gallstones. For 3000 years, traditional Chinese practitioners have prescribed bear bile to break down gallstones, detoxify the body, reduce fever and act as an anti-inflammatory. And as with many other Chinese remedies, it’s also regarded as somewhat of a miracle cure for anything from hangovers to haemorrhoids, the common cold to cancer – assumptions with no scientific credibility.
As well as being used in medicine, leftover supplies also appear in products such as shampoo, tonics, eye-drops and even wine. Although international trade in bear parts and derivatives is prohibited under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the ban is widely flouted. According to a survey conducted by the World League for Protection of Animals, illegal bear products are readily available in the US, Malaysia, Japan, Singapore, Canada and even Australia.
Regardless of the medicinal benefits of bear bile, its extraction is an unnecessary torture, with UDCA now available in pharmaceutical-grade synthetic form. It can also be harvested from the carcasses of animals slaughtered for the meat trade or substituted with herbal concoctions. But despite modern alternatives being readily available, many Chinese doctors still prescribe bear bile to patients, driving market demand.
Once, the only way to acquire bear bile was to kill a wild animal and remove its gall bladder – itself a valuable ingredient in Chinese medicine. During the 1980s, however, bear farms began appearing in North Korea, before spreading into China and other parts of Asia. The Chinese government has openly supported the practice, claiming that the farms protect wild populations. And while bear farming was officially banned in Vietnam in 1995, the practice is on the rise in Laos as Vietnamese farmers take their operations across the border.
Rather than protect the wild population of Asiatic black bears, as the Chinese government claims, farming has made the bears a valuable commodity, with illegal poaching and trading (of cubs in particular) on the rise. Latest figures show that populations of Asiatic black bears – also known as ‘moon bears’ after the adorable cream-coloured crescents decorating their chests – are rapidly declining, with only around 16,000 still living in the wild. They are classified by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as a ‘vulnerable’ species.
Learning about bile farms from the IFAW was a rude awakening. I was furious – not only about the intolerable cruelty, but also that I had been ignorant of this practice. I knew about other forms of animal cruelty, such as the hunting of elephants for their ivory, for instance. My mother had lived in India for many years and she had told me how elephants were killed not only for their tusks but also for their feet, which were used as doorstops, and for their tails, which were used as fly swats.
Today, of course, information is readily available on computers, but when I was at school – indeed, even when my children were being educated – we had no knowledge about the terrible things that human beings have done to this planet: global warming, deforestation and animal torture. So this new data came as a terrible shock, destroying my peace of mind.
For weeks I went about my daily duties like a zombie, as frustrated by my inability to act as I was about the bears’ suffering. In fact, I was so wrapped up in my own misery, I lost all perspective. Then one morning in late September, I awoke with clarity. I may not be Superwoman, but I knew I could do something, however insignificant. Even if it just served as a placebo to ease my own pain, it would be a start.
As I began typing something resembling an official-looking document, my mother, who was living with my husband Ron and I at the time, asked me what I was doing.
‘Writing up a petition,’ I told her. ‘I have to do something to save those bears.’
Although elderly and increasingly frail, empathy was not my mother’s strong point.
‘Nonsense!’ she scoffed. ‘What a stupid waste of time. It won’t do any good. The only thing you’ll achieve is getting yourself arrested.’
I never was one to take heed of my mother’s warnings, so with a flourish I removed my petition from the typewriter and headed out the door.
‘You’re crazy!’ my mother yelled after me.
As I stood at the entrance of my local Karrinyup shopping centre waiting for my first victim to approach, I began to think maybe my mother was right. In my hand was a clipboard holding my hastily created petition (complete with hand-drawn lines), headed: PETITION – FREE THE BEARS OF CHINA.
I stood there shivering, exposed and vulnerable. I felt like a complete idiot, but then again, I reminded myself, I had nothing to lose but my pride.
‘Would you like to sign this petition to help the bears in China?’ I said in a weak voice to a middle-aged woman bustling past me, laden with shopping bags.
‘Too right I would, love! Just give me the bloody pencil!’ she replied, plonking her shopping down to become my very first signatory. I could have kissed her!
And so it continued – passers-by continued to take the time to stop, ask questions, and to sign their support. After half an hour, people were queuing to sign – I didn’t even have to ask anymore! After several hours, I returned home with more than 500 signatures and one clear message – people out there did care, every bit as much as me.
‘I’m surprised to see you,’ my mother greeted me gruffly as I walked in the door. ‘I was ready to bail you out.’
Even her negativity couldn’t spoil my mood. I was elated by the response to my petition, and buoyed by the enthusiasm I’d encountered. Just in my local area alone, over 500 people had shown that they were prepared to put their names to a cause, to sign up and be counted.
Now I knew I wasn’t alone, the path ahead seemed that much more certain.
People power, as I was to discover, is an amazing weapon, but sometimes a little help from high places doesn’t hurt. For me, that support came from an unexpected source – my local MP, MHR Eoin Cameron. Cameron, a well-known Perth identity with his own show on ABC Radio (which I listened to religiously), had won the seat of Stirling in the 1993 election, forming part of John Hewson’s Liberal opposition party. A skilled orator, he immediately made a mark as a controversial and outspoken member of parliament, refusing to back down over issues he felt were important. The Monday after my signature-collecting mission at Karrinyup, I picked up the telephone and called Mr Cameron to see if he could help in any way. I didn’t expect to get beyond his secretary, let alone speak to him personally. Much to my surprise, he not only took the time to talk to me, but he informed me he was already well aware of the bear bile travesty, having seen the same television story as I had. ‘Don’t worry, Mary,’ he told me. ‘I’m right behind you on this and I’ve already put my expressions of concern into Canberra and made a protest with the Chinese embassy. Rest assured, you have my full support. Any assistance I can give you, I will.’
True to his word, Mr Cameron offered me open access to his office facilities, which meant I could at last draw up a petition that looked more official. I began to visit his office on a daily basis, photocopying petition after petition, which I distributed to veterinary clinics and pet shops in the Perth metropolitan area. And with his assistance, I started a letter-writing campaign, targeting prominent people I thought might be able to help raise awareness of the bear bile industry.
The response was truly incredible and beyond my wildest expectations – within just a week, I had over 3000 signatures!
Then, on 30 September 1993, Mr Cameron presented an official statement before Parliament, which was recorded in the Hansard records.
‘I would like to bring to the attention of the House an issue which is of great concern to me. Some time ago . . . I witnessed footage of several Asiatic black bears in the People’s Republic of China in conditions which totally appalled not only my family but also many constituents of Stirling who were absolutely sickened by the treatment of the bears,’ the speech began.
It went on to tell a little about the background of the bile industry, and how inhumane and painful it is for the animals.
‘I have had many calls to my electorate office regarding this issue,’ he continued. ‘One particular person I would like to acknowledge is Mrs Mary Hutton, who has tirelessly worked on the issue since those scenes were aired. She has organised a petition, which will be tabled here next week, containing over 3000 signatures calling on this House to take action against China’s maltreatment of these defenceless animals. As the bears of China have no voice, let the bellow of pain of their human friends here in Australia be so loud and heart-rending that it will reach through to the cold-as-stone hearts of their captors and the government of the People’s Republic of China.’
Unbelievable – I’d been mentioned before Parliament! But even more unbelievable was that the issue had officially been recognised as one worthy of discussion and action. Those hours standing like a lemon outside the shopping centre suddenly seemed worthwhile. Surely something must be achieved through raising awareness?
But Eoin Cameron had another surprise up his sleeve: publicity. A few days after his historic speech in Parliament, I picked up the Sunday Times, opened to page three and nearly fell off my chair. There, in a column down the side of the paper, was an article entitled ‘Mother Battles for Bears’.
‘Housewife and mother Mary Hutton of Stirling was so moved by the plight of captive black bears kept in appalling conditions in China that she took to suburban streets to try to save them,’ the article said.
‘This week Stirling MHR Eoin Cameron presented a petition in Federal Parliament, signed by more than 3000 people, calling on Australia to take action against the maltreatment of the bears that are kept in cages so small they cannot move and go insane.’
Seeing my name in print was so unexpected. Even my mother was proud! Ron, Simon and my daughter Claire were as surprised as I was, not thinking my petition would go any further than the shopping mall, but they were all very encouraging. Claire suggested we send petitions out in the mail to everyone we knew, while Simon mentioned that the publicity might encourage more people to get involved by helping collect signatures for the petition.
He was right – those few words in black and white had an incredible impact on my campaign. Suddenly the phone was ringing off the hook.
‘What can we do to help?’ total strangers began to ask. It was then that I realised I could not stop with this one petition; I had to be in it for the long haul, raising awareness in any way I could until this terrible, inhumane practice was stopped for good.
I had to help free the bears, one step at a time.
Excerpted from Free the Bears by Mary Hutton and Julie Miller. Copyright © 2013 by Mary Hutton and Julie Miller.
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