Animal welfare activists in China rise up against cruelty

More and more Chinese, especially young people, are calling out cruel practices, such as bear bile farming, in China.

Bile extracted from caged bears. Stray animals abused and neglected. Sharks' fins lopped off for soup.

Most people's perception of China's animal rights record is as grim as the fates of some of the animals living there. But a movement has quietly risen to challenge that.

"'Animal welfare' was a foreign term," Peter Li, who works in China for Humane Society International, told MSN News in an e-mail. "It is now a well-known concept in China."

In February, China Daily reported that the China Association of Traditional Chinese Medicine said at a press conference that "the process of extracting bear bile was as easy, natural and painless as turning on a tap. After the operation was done, bears went out to play happily."

Bear bile is used in cosmetics and for medicinal purposes, such as preventing gallstones, but experts disagree over whether it works.

China animal cruelty: School children protest animal cruelty.Courtesy of Peter Li

After the association's comments, a video went viral in China showing a much less sunny version of the bile extraction process. Animals Asia says the practice is cruel and invasive.

"Over the years, the campaign against bear bile farming has often been a sensitive one, but today it is clear that the issue is finally mainstream and even schools are engaged and involved, with support and numbers growing all the time," Animals Asia Founder and CEO Jill Robinson said in a statement.

That response is one sign of a larger animal-welfare movement in China, Li believes. He said the country has "changed beyond recognition."

According to Li, ordinary people in China, especially young people, are pressuring the government for anti-cruelty legislation. Even pet ownership has changed. Li said that regulations on pet ownership have softened and that dog culling has abated.

"The movement is strong and will grow stronger," he wrote.

It’s not just young people motivating the changes. Animal rights in China has been endorsed by some of the country's best-known celebrities.

"Jackie Chan . . . has been speaking for tiger protection and against cruelty to farm bears," Li wrote. "Yao Ming . . . is a towering moral figure. He calls on the Chinese people to stay away from shark fin soup, from ivory products and bear bile products."

China animal cruelty: A government cat shelter in ChinaCourtesy of Peter Li

Groups like Humane Society International and Animals Asia are still pushing, however.

"The explosion of newspaper, TV, radio and Internet stories in China about bear bile farming has seen a massive online outcry demanding justice for the bears," Robinson said. She said in the statement that when Animals Asia was working on its campaign against bear bile farming, the group was "inundated by people who wanted to take part."

But Li sees a lot more work ahead if things like bear bile farms and the hunting of endangered species is going to end.

"A lot needs to be done, admittedly," he said. "But, today, it causes a strong reaction when animal abuse is exposed."