‘I cried every day’: British vet’s harrowing mission to give sight back to bears blinded in China’s cruel ‘farms’ that harvest their bile for medicine
- Claudia Hartley became first vet to perform cataract surgery on moon bear
- They are starved and locked in cramped cages while their bile is harvested
- Bile, once used in tonic, is now in shampoos, toothpastes and eye drops
- She first heard of their plight in 2008 and has rescued sight of eight bears
- Up to another 20,000 endangered bears thought to still be trapped on farms
Despite the sweltering afternoon heat, Snoopy the bear is playing happily – if rather impatiently – in the sun.
Before long, her thick black fur will force her to return to wallow in the coolness of the small pool in the heart of her enclosure but, for now, she’s fighting with her friends over the climbing frame.
Snoopy, with her distinctive ‘Mickey Mouse’ ears, and two of the other bears who share her enclosure have spotted a piece of melon high up near the top of the frame and each is determined to claim the prize.
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Rescued: Snoopy the bear, with his distinctive Mickey Mouse ears, plays happily in the enclosure he shares with two other moon bears at the sanctuary in Chengdu, China
Desperate: Snoopy was cut and injured when he arrived at the bear sanctuary. The animals are either bred in captivity or captured and kept in tiny ‘crush cages’, built to be the same size as the bear
Pioneer: Claudia Hartley, pictured examining this bear’s eye, became the first vet ever to perform cataract surgery on a moon bear. She has now helped give eight bears back their sight
That they can see at all, let alone such a small snack so far above them, is a testament to the woman watching them.
For, when British vet Claudia Hartley first met these endangered moon bears – named for the distinctive, crescent-shaped yellow slash of fur across their chest – none of them could see.
Rescued from the unspeakably cruel bear bile trade, which keeps them locked in tiny cages for years while the product of their gallbladder is harvested to be used in traditional Chinese medicine, all had gone blind through cataracts caused by their ill-treatment.
Second chance: A bear looks playfully behind from behind a tree at the sanctuary. Animals Asia is buying up all of the licences for bear bile farms
Claudia became the first vet ever to perform cataract surgery on a moon bear. Watching them, jostling and scampering in like a group of nursery children at playtime, at the sanctuary in Chengdu, China, she’s often moved to tears.
For these bears are undoubtedly the lucky ones: there are up to another 20,000 thought to still be trapped on farms.
When Claudia, an ophthalmology specialist at the Animals Health Trust in Newmarket, heard about their plight through a colleague in 2008, she immediately offered to help.
She has now rescued the sight of eight bears, and today she’s in south east Asia to perform the same surgery on yet more.
‘Nothing could have prepared me for that first visit,’ says the 41-year-old, who lives in Cambridge. ‘I’d read up about the bear bile trade and thought I’d be OK.
‘But when I saw the size of the cages they’d been kept in while at the bile farms – the charity had kept some from when the bears came in – I climbed into one and it was tiny, even for me – I wept.
‘Meeting the bears and hearing about their stories was so emotional, I think I cried every day. One, called Oliver, was crippled from spending 30 years crammed into a tiny cage.
New beginnings: Snoopy was one of the bears that had gone blind through cataracts caused by their ill-treatment while in captivity for bile harvesting. He now lives happily at the Chengdu sanctuary
At work: Claudia Hartley takes retinal photographs of a bear with veterinary nurse Sarah Blachard, right, and veterinary ophthalmologist Rachael Grundon before performing cataract surgery
‘Then there was Mouse who came in so skeletal, you could see the bones sticking out of her feet. She had to be euthanised on the spot. To see something like that, to know she’d been brought to safety but it was just too late, was heartbreaking.’
Claudia had got to know of the work done by Animals Asia, a charity set up by Briton Jill Robinson in 1998 to rescue bile bears in the region, through a colleague at work.
Trapped: Snoopy arriving at the sanctuary from the farm where he lived in a tinycage and developed an infection that caused him to lose his sight
China is the biggest producer of bear bile in the world and last year it was estimated that between 9,000 to 20,000 bears were being kept on around 100 different farms in the country. Around 7,000kg of bile is produced by them every year.
Its uses have increased exponentially. Whereas once bile was used as a liver tonic – although there’s no scientific evidence that it can help liver function – it’s now used in everything from shampoos and toothpaste to eye drops. Again, there’s no medical reason for it.
‘The bile is used unpasteurised – it’s got blood, pus and tumour cells in it and they’re putting it in eye drops,’ says Claudia. ‘It’s pretty vile. But the attitude is, if it’s got bear bile in it, it’s great. Demand is very high.’
The bears are either bred in captivity or captured in the wild and crammed into a cage – called a ‘crush cage’ – the same size as them so they cannot move and the bile is therefore easier to harvest.
The farmer – not a vet – uses crude drugs to sedate the creature then cuts a hole through the skin, the stomach wall, all the stomach muscles to the gallbladder which stores bile made by the liver.
The bile drips through this channel and is collected in a bag, the wound constantly being reopened if it begins to heal.
‘It’s not hygienic or sterile,’ says Claudia, ‘and some bears die from infection. But they’re mostly incredibly stoical – they survive a lot of things that would kill other creatures.’
Even so, 40 per cent of bile bears eventually die from liver damage caused because of the harvesting of the bile.
Of those that do survive, many lose their eyesight to cataracts caused by the constant infections, trauma and malnutrition: most are never fed anything more than water and rice.
But while an expert in removing cataracts in dogs, cats and horses Claudia, who qualified ast a vet at Britsol University, and her fellow vet David Donaldson, had never attempted to do so on a bear before. And nor had anyone else, it seems.
Check up: Claudia Hartley, pictured in light blue, checks the health of one of the bears in China, which is the largest producer of bear bile in the world
Free from cruelty: Snoopy at the sanctuary. Bile is harvested by the farmer who uses crude drugs to sedate the creature then cuts a hole through the skin, the stomach wall, all the stomach muscles to the gallbladder
‘There were no papers on it,’ she says. ‘I was terrified the first time I did one on a bear, going over and over what could go wrong in my head. But if you’re not nervous, you’re not taking it seriously enough.’
‘Thankfully bears’ eyes are like dogs’ eyes – although the lens is smaller in a bear. We could extrapolate a lot from that using our experience of dogs.
In the operation, a gel is used to dilate the pupils – the British vets found it takes 40 minutes to work, twice as long than on a dog.
Unknown territory: Claudia, pictured, is an expert in removing cataracts in dogs, cats and horses, but she and her fellow vet David Donaldson, had never attempted to do so on a bear before
Simple pleasures: A moon bear enjoys the warmth of the sun while on a climbing frame in his enclosure. It is thought there are still 20,000 bears still trapped in cruel bile farms
Then, using a special microscope, the vet makes a 3mm long incision in the cornea so that they can then remove the circular lens beneath (‘like taking the top off an egg,’ says Claudia).
An ultrasound machine is then used to break up the cataract and suck it out of the tiny gap before a false lens is put on the eye. The whole procedure takes just over half an hour per eye, compared to ten minutes for a canine. And when they come round, they can see again, often for the first time in years.
‘For me, the loveliest moment is when the bear’s carer saw the bear watching her for the very first time,’ says Claudia. ‘They’ve developed a really close relationship but the bear’s never seen them before. That was really heart-warming.’
‘It is still heartbreaking’: Claudia , pictured examining a bear in 2011, got to know of the work done by Animals Asia, a charity set up by Briton Jill Robinson in 1998 to rescue bile bears in the region, through a colleague
Better life: Two of the bears rescued from the unspeakably cruel bear bile trade. They are kept locked in tiny cages for years while the product of their gallbladder is harvested to be used in traditional Chinese medicine
Around two to three weeks later, they’ve recovered enough to go outside again and finally see where they’ve been playing for months or years.
‘Once they’ve got their sight, they can go into an enclosure with a pool – it’s too risky when they’re blind,’ says Claudia. ‘Some of them hog it – and one loves to blow bubbles under the water. They adore it.
‘They’re real characters. They love the hammocks in the enclosures – especially the bears with arthritis caused by being so severely cramped on those cages. They sit in them, rocking, or bouncing on them like kids on beds. They’re amazing.’
This is Claudia’s sixth trip out to the region since 2008 and in total she’s so far performed cataract surgery on seven bears.
Despite her experiences, Claudia has yet to become numbed by the cruelty dished out to these creatures. ‘I wish I was immune to it,’ she says, ‘but it’s still heartbreaking.’
Frolicking: One of the bears relaxes in the water at the sanctuary. Once the animals have their sight, they can go into an enclosure with a pool – it is too dangerous for them otherwise
Better life: Around two to three weeks after an operation, the bears have recovered enough to go outside again and finally see where they’ve been playing for months or years
The psychological damage caused to the creatures impossible to quantify: one bear at Chengdu was so terrified by the sight of the grass in his enclosure, he paced around on the concrete for two years before plucking up the courage he needed to walk on the lawn.
Currently, to farm bear bile in China you need a licence although the Government has now decided not to issue any more.
The charity Animals Asia is currently buying the licences – and consequently the bears – off farmers and it’s hoped the practice will soon be at an end.
Claudia certainly wouldn’t complain if her skills weren’t needed again. Back in England, she lives alone with her Staffordshire Bull Terrier dog Mac and two rescue cats, Enid and Devon.
‘I’d like to have kids but not yet,’ she says. ‘I’m content with my job. I’d rather be operating on an animal than on the dating scene.’
Passing on skills: Students look on as Claudia Hartley performs surgery on a bear. She said she would not complain if she was needed in China again, but said her time there was emotionally challenging
Her work in China has had an unexpected effect on her too.
‘When I came home the first time, I realised I’d had a life changing experience,’ she says. ‘I’d been really emotional when I was out there but when I flew home it was ten times worse.
‘Before then, I’d been thinking I was doing an important job in the UK, but I discovered there were massive things that had to be done abroad. It was a heavy dose of realism.
‘In Britain, I operate mostly on pets who are loved and cherished and brought to me to make them a little bit happier. I’d always been sustained by that and felt like a bit of a hero. But then I began to feel that all my hard work wasn’t as worthwhile as it was helping these bears.
‘I really missed the naivety I had before I first went to China, before I knew how bad it was. Back then, I was happy, enjoying life and feeling quite satisfied.
‘But now I realise there’s a lot of humans who are pretty bad to animals.’
Thankfully there are also a lot of human like Claudia who are pretty good to them as well. And, whatever she may think, that makes her a hero in most people’s eyes.
Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2726593/British-vet-giving-sight-bears-rescued-Chinas-unspeakably-cruel-bile-trade.html#ixzz3AioGrGYj
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