Charles Bukowski sez: “As we go on with our lives, we tend to forget that the jails and the hospitals and the madhouses and the graveyards are packed.”
I’m pretty sure Buk was using the word “forget” with a characteristic wink, maybe even a sneer. After all, in order to “go on with our lives,” there’s plenty we need to forget. In fact, the list gets longer each and every minute of each and every day.
This just added for some folks: Bear farms.
The story shot across the interwebs last week with headlines like this: “The ultimate sacrifice: Mother bear kills her cub and then herself to save her from a life of torture.”
As of yet, there’s no way to fully verify its veracity but a little context helps:
In countries like China, Korea, and Vietnam, the Moon bear is “farmed” for its bile, which is used in traditional Chinese medicine for a variety of conditions. As detailed by Ari Solomon at Huffington Post, Moon bears are kept imprisoned in dark basements inside cages roughly the size of their bodies. “Picture a coffin made of bars—a living coffin,” he writes. “The bears never see sunlight and cannot move.”
It gets worse.
The Daily Mail explains that the bile, a digestive juice, is “harvested through a permanent hole in the abdomen and gall bladder of Asiatic black bears, which, as it is open permanently, is susceptible to infections and diseases, which can cause the animals unbearable pain. This often leads bears trying to kill themselves by punching themselves in the stomach. To stop this they are fitted with iron vests.”
Iron vests to prevent tortured bears from taking their own lives? Damn, we humans are such talented problem solvers.
The metal bars crush some bears so tightly that their skin grows around them. Some go blind from the darkness. Others experience “stress dwarfism” from the forcible compression of the cages and the iron vests. And this merciless cruelty goes on, for thousands of Moon bears, for up to 25 years.
Which brings us back to the widely reported episode that shone a brief light on humanity’s seemingly endless capacity for brutality. According to witnesses, a mother Moon bear managed to break out of its cage when she “heard her cub in distress.”
“When a worker wanted to open up her cub’s stomach, the mother bear broke open the cage and went after the cub,” explained one witness. “After failing to release the chained cub, she hugged the cub. Then, the mother bear killed the cub (by strangulation) to save it from a life of hell.”
Witnesses say the mother bear promptly killed herself by running head first into a wall.
Whether or not every detail has been accurately reported, there’s plenty we can learn from this rare moment in which animal cruelty became headline news.
Lesson #1: This is not an anomaly/There are no limits to human cruelty
The Moon bear story provoked many an outraged Facebook post and agonized tweet—but precious few connected it to the myriad animal nightmares running concurrently. Our deeply inculcated culture of violent domination requires us to deny the 24/7 malevolence of factory farms, battery cages, veal crates, fur farms, dogfight rings, hunters, rodeos, zoos, circuses, vivisection labs, and so much more.
The story of that mother bear was not an anomaly. Her pitiless treatment was not an isolated case of abuse. Her heart-wrenching desperation was not uncommon. We just choose to forget all this in order to go on with our lives.
It is proper to feel consumed with white-hot rage when learning of bear bile farms. It is denial to act as if this practice is inconsistent with present human culture.
Lesson #2: Bear bile is not a unique medical treatment/There are no limits to human callousness and irrationality
You may choose to believe that the pain of extracting bear bile is worth it if it can save humans (if so, I refer you to Lesson #1 above) but to add insult to injury, the folks at AnimalsAsia.org tell of a report by the Chinese Association of Medicine and Philosophy and EarthCare, which details cheap and effective herbal alternatives to bear bile, including Chinese ivy stem, dandelion, chrysanthemum, common sage and rhubarb. “I have been a practitioner of Chinese medicine for over 40 years and have never used bear bile,” explains Professor Liu Zhen Cai. “Today we have over 50 herbal alternatives and synthetic medicines, which have the same efficacy as bear bile.”
Translation: The torture described above exists solely for the sake of profit.
Lesson #3: Animals are much more like us than we’re programmed to believe
What makes genocide and slavery and ethnic cleansing and institutional racism and sexism that much easier to ignore is the belief that some people are different from other people. What makes the slaughterhouses and trawling nets and human-induced extinction rates that much easier to forget is the belief that non-human animals are different from humans.
But then, we’re suddenly faced with something beyond that paradigm: It’s likely that last week, a Moon bear demonstrated more heart, more courage, more compassion, and more love than most humans will ever comprehend. In other words, there’s something else we choose to forget that’s illustrated by this story: animal sentience and awareness. If we come away from this horrific tale with one new thought, let it be this: Animals are no where near as different from humans as we’ve been taught they are and they deserve freedom and dignity.
That’s the essential first step—not just towards ending the practice of “farming” bear bile—but also towards inter-species empathy.
Lesson #4: Direct action works and must be pursued
A weakened and tortured bear somehow smashed its way out of metal cage the size of a coffin in the name of protecting its cub. Rather than treat other species with condescending contempt, perhaps we could learn from that brave mother Moon bear. She’d had enough, seen enough, and suffered enough, so she chose the path of direct action to end the misery—by any means necessary.
If only we arrogant and complacent humans would act so heroically and decisively, life on earth might not be teetering on the brink.
Life on earth, after all, should involve a lot less forgetting and a lot more remembering.