Relief at a Stiff Price II: Singing the Bear Song

Steve Russell

Yona—in English, Bear—is said to be important among the 4-legged tribes, a leader in animal councils. He’s also generous to humans, sharing his meat, his grease, his coat, and even strips of his gut when necessary for bowstrings. These things Bear gives freely.

Traditional people will cover his bones with leaves and sing the Bear Song so that he will come again when we have need. Some of the elders say there used to be a Bear Clan among the Cherokee, one of several lost in the past and the social upheavals that left Cherokee no longer the trade language between coastal peoples and much of the interior of what became the U.S. Atlantic coast. Bear is not one of the seven clans we know today.

Cherokees who go off and involve ourselves in yonega politics tend to become, as they call people who don’t believe humans are at the center of everything, treehuggers. We don’t believe trees should be clear-cut or that any animal species should be hunted to extinction. Some traditional Cherokees would have questioned whether it was even possible to hunt Bear to extinction, but lots of things have changed since our people have been split apart and most modern Cherokees, like myself, can no longer sing the Bear Song, even assuming Bear would still answer if we got the words right. However, we are not the only Indian nation with a Bear Song.

Foreign Policy carried an article on the threats to Asian bears reporting that bear bile is now “farmed” in China, Vietnam, Laos, and Myanmar. Consumption of bear bile is practiced in even more Asian nations than “farm” it, including that temple of capitalist modernity, Japan, and its wannabe, South Korea.

Bear “farming” involves confinement in cages similar to the ones U.S. producers use to torture chickens for the sake of egg production, pigs for pork, calves for veal. The animal has no room to even turn around. Animal torture in the U.S. is known to produce inferior eggs and meat, but more of it and cheaper.

It’s hard to make judgments about the “quality” of bear bile harvested in tubes implanted in the bears for their short, miserable lives. The use is in “traditional medicine.” Like powdered rhinoceros horns and tiger bones, the demise of another endangered species proceeds in the service of male potency and other benefits grounded in superstition, not science, making evaluation of “potency” difficult and chemical analysis a fruitless gesture.

Stress hormones induced in animals by poor farming practices degrade the meat in ways that can be verified in a laboratory. Yard eggs have more B-carotene, which you can measure in a lab or your grandmother can tell by looking at the yolk. There are no similar methods for judging the qualities of animal parts since there is no scientific evidence that they have medicinal properties in the first place.

The rhinos and the tigers go extinct in their natural ranges over the hunt for “medicine” and the bears are going extinct in Asia, the center of the idea that bear bile is good for humans. As the rarity of Asian bears slows down bile production, bears of the Americas are becoming targets of the same trade. A bear gall bladder is worth thousands of dollars and the nationality of the bear does not matter. The Animal Welfare Institute reported in 2005, “A Black Bear gallbladder can be purchased from a poacher in Idaho for $15, but in Hawaii, it brings $1,500, and in Korea, as much as $15,000 ...” The same report pegged the record price for a gallbladder at $45,000, but that was nine years ago.

Bear bile is worth more by weight than either gold or cocaine. Bear paws are also trafficked, but for food rather than medicine. A bowl of bear paw soup can cost $1,000. Chinese servings of bear paws sold for between $346 and $576 each in 2005 and the Animal Welfare Institute reported, “At the Beijing Lou restaurant, braised bear paws are advertised on a three-sided, revolving, illuminated sign, with enlarged photos of the paws...”

China contains over 1.35 billion souls, all throwing elbows to enter the middle classes that already drive consumption in the “Asian tiger” economies, traditionally Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan, but with Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, and even Vietnam coming along. Newly empowered consumers drive demand for bear parts and because bears are going extinct in Asia and Russia, North America is an up and coming source.

Black bear hunting is legal in Canada, but trafficking in gall bladders and paws has been banned in most of Canada’s provinces in an attempt to suppress illegal bear hunting, exceeding permitted kills or taking bears out of season. These violations are all textbook examples of what is broadly called poaching.

According to Born Free, an organization interested in stopping the trade in bear parts, five states here in the nation below Mr. Jay’s line do not even regulate—let alone ban—the trade: Maine, Vermont, Idaho, Wyoming, and New York.

International law responds to this problem with The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) entered into force in 1975. As American Indians know from seeking protection of their rights in international law, treaties are seldom “self-executing.” They require legislation, which in the case of Canada requires more than provinces and in the case of the U.S. requires more than states.

Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Arizona) made the last serious run at applying CITES to bear parts when he sponsored the Bear Protection Act of 2009. In the lobbying scrum that developed around Grijalva’s bill, five of the organizations comprising the usual treehugger suspects (E.g., Humane Society) faced 17 of the usual Homo sapiens über alles crowd (E.g., National Rifle Association). Since it’s been impossible to beat back the NRA to protect people, it should go without saying that Bear would have no chance.

Complainers on the Internet about merciless harassment of harmless hunters by a cruel government from the Something Bruin federal sting investigation are still in high dudgeon over a year after Something Bruin wrapped up. It’s true that most of the convictions obtained are relatively petty, involving 30 days or less in jail and mostly fines. Some hunting licenses were revoked. Those people objecting to the pettiness of the offenses charged will be first in line to complain about any attempt to punish poaching on the felony level.

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There being no federal felony just for cutting up Bear, game wardens fall back on hunting without a license, or in places hunting is not allowed, or by banned methods, such as spot-lighting.

Tribal governments, if they choose to regulate hunting, can be more restrictive than state governments. They could, for example, allow taking by tribal permit and simply not issue permits for other than traditional uses. Indians have seen enough species wiped out by the colonists to understand humans can destroy entire species and will do it for money if not restrained by law.

Many with the power to regulate in yonega politics are a superstitious lot who believe in One True God who is anthropomorphic and therefore will always protect humans. Sen. James Mountain Inhofe (R-Oklahoma), the incoming chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, asserted that faith trumps science when he said:

Well, actually the Genesis 8:22 that I use in there is that "as long as the earth remains there will be seed time and harvest, cold and heat, winter and summer, day and night," my point is, God's still up there. The arrogance of people to think that we, human beings, would be able to change what He is doing in the climate is to me outrageous.

Humans will always survive, the superstitious believe, because that’s the way creation is ordered. Other animals, not so much. In 2010, National Geographic reported that, globally, six of eight known bear species are threatened. In the U.S., most states where bears reside have stable populations, except for grizzlies, and the biggest threat to Bear is not yet hunting for his gall bladder and his paws, but rather the spread of human activity into ursine habitat. Bear is being thrust into competition with people for living space. Of course, people will always win.

Maybe it would help if enough of us could re-learn the Bear Song? It’s as likely to do the job as Genesis 8: 22, but passing the Bear Protection Act might be more to the point.

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