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Born Free USA Blog

Born Free USA Blog

Animal-Derived 'Medicines' Problematical

Published 10/12/10
By Born Free USA staff

Got arthritis? Try tiger bones. Suffer from delirium? Get hold of some rhinoceros horn. Sexually stymied? Ingest a seahorse.

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM, but various forms are practiced throughout Asia) has been around for thousands of years, and likely has helped millions of people feel better, but it cries out for updating in terms of compassion to all living things. Whereas at one time wild animals employed in the TCM pharmacopoeia were abundant and humans’ pharmaceutical use of them limited, today creatures are savagely and systematically exploited for dubious — if not demonstrably false — medicinal purposes, as well as non-medical applications.

Throughout the world, spurred in part by animal advocacy groups such as Born Free USA, baby steps are being taken to increase public awareness of the pitfalls of animal-derived medicines. Consumers are beginning to link their choices in drugs with the suffering of animals, the loss of wildlife habitat and the threat of extinction to a growing number of species over a range of life forms, mammal and reptile, arboreal and aquatic, near and far.

In South Korea, one such baby step is being taken for Asiatic black bears. The country’s National Assembly is considering a bill that would phase out bear farms, where what’s harvested is bile. About 1,400 bears are kept in deplorable conditions at the farms, where after their bile has been extracted they are slaughtered at age 10 so their gall bladders can be removed and marketed whole, in pieces, or dried and powdered. (Left alone in the wild, an Asiatic black bear could live up to, or even beyond, 30 years.) Such barbaric practices cause immense suffering and high mortality rates of caged bears in Vietnam and, especially, China.

Traditional Chinese medicine employs the bear bile’s high concentration of ursodeoxycholic acid (UDCA) to purportedly cure liver problems, improve eyesight and reduce pain, among other beneficial things. The Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine reports clinical research has been inadequate to prove the efficacy of bear-derived UDCA, and that bile from other animals — such as pigs and rabbits — has been suggested by some as an alternative. Herbal and all-chemical versions of UDCA show promise, the journal said in its 2008 article, but again, more lab work remains.

Even if science confirms that bear bile can improve humans’ health, it seems clear that more-compassionate remedies to human illnesses and discomforts abound, and are produced with a much softer impact on animals and the environment. What South Korean legislators are poised to do, with enough prodding from their constituents, could result in the bear farms’ end by 2011. The London-based World Society of the Protection of Animals and its partner in the effort, Green Korea United, in just the past few weeks have inspired tens of thousands of people around the world to speak against bear farms.

Once the farms are banned, of course, there remains the problem of finding safe homes for the bears to peacefully live out their natural lives. (The Animals Asia Foundation, founded in 1998 by Jill Robinson, is working especially hard to rescue bears from the bile industry.) Another challenge will be to block potentially abhorrent side effects of the South Korean bear-bile industry’s closing, such as the increased poaching of American black bears for their gall bladders.

Every baby step to help wild animals is made with patience, strength and determination. Born Free is committed to keeping us all moving in the right direction.

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