Chinese medicine and endangered species – how one NUNM student is turning within to make lasting change

At the National University of Natural Medicine (NUNM) in Portland, Oregon, Classical Chinese Medicine students undergo rigorous study of the classical texts, with case discussion, lineage transmission, cosmology, qigong, and much, much more serving to cultivate not just an excellent education but also self-awareness, critical thinking, and a deep respect for nature.

The core tenets of CCM, which consider the laws of nature and the environment around us, are in many ways both relevant and needed now more than ever. Consider alone how rampant deforestation, rapidly rising carbon dioxide levels, and the acidification of our oceans have led to wildlife populations being cut by more than two-thirds since 1970; it seems we could all benefit from restoring our deeper connection to Earth. But what happens when these teachings, developed thousands of years ago in part to foster harmony and sustainability, get put to the test in a contemporary context – and fall short?

That conversation, says fifth-year CCM student Monique McKennon, is long overdue. But if she’s successful, it’s one she hopes NUNM will drive, as leaders in the field consider the future of the medicine.

Fifth-year CCM student Monique McKennon and her dog.
“We all have responsibility here,” says Monique. “To change is difficult because the answers aren’t clear all the time. But as I see it, that doesn’t mean that [the hard questions] shouldn’t be asked, and that doesn’t mean that they’re not important. In fact, I think that it makes it in some ways more important to approach them, even though they’re difficult, because they’re pressing and because they matter.”

Monique is referring specifically to the use of animal medicinals in Chinese medicine, which she says has contributed to the exploitation – even near-extinction – of certain species, especially as worldwide interest in Chinese medicine has dramatically increased in recent years. This paradox seems to put Chinese medicine in conflict with its own teachings.

“Chinese medicine is so beautiful, partly because we can use it in all forms of medicine. It can be used to treat acute conditions, it can be used to treat chronic conditions, and everything in between. There are so many ways that Chinese medicine can do good in the world, but if we exponentially increase in our ability to help people and exponentially increase in our demand, that’s actually a very dangerous situation for the animals.”

Many medicine systems around the world harvest animal-derived ingredients for healing. Chinese medicine in particular has historically drawn on more than 1,000 plant species, and about 36 animal species. Of those 36 animal species – which include tiger, rhinoceros, sea horse, and turtle – more than a few are now considered endangered. With poaching of wildlife banned in much of the world, Chinese medicine practitioners have turned to farming in recent decades, and have also begun to explore synthetic and plant-based alternatives.

But not all of the animals threatened by “over-fishing” – an analogy Monique uses – are protected. Take the humble donkey, for instance, whose skin creates a gelatin-like substance called ejiao, commonly used to treat anemia, low blood cell counts, and reproductive problems (it’s also widely used by the cosmetics industry). Demand for ejiao has increased dramatically in recent years; where 20 years ago there were more than 11 million wild donkeys in China, that number has since plummeted to 6 million. To meet the current production requirements, more than 5 million donkeys need to be harvested per year, creating a crisis both locally and abroad, as well as a need for alternative sourcing solutions. But the farming approach doesn’t appear to work in this case.

“Donkeys gestate for a long period of time, and they don’t breed as well in captivity,” Monique says. “They’re sensitive creatures, and so – go figure – they’re not willing to have babies at the same rate and they gestate for so long that just farming them isn’t actually a reasonable option.”

The increased demand for donkey has sparked an illegal international trade, which means that working animals are being stolen from farmers in countries like Egypt and sold in illicit markets. Just like that, it’s morphed into a global public health issue.

“Morality plays a role in this,” says Monique, “but this is so much larger and it affects people and land and animals. It connects to violence in illicit markets. It connects to governments and systems of power. It is not just a moral question of ‘Do I want to use this herb or not?’ This is a much, much larger topic.”

Student capstone project, faculty lecture series, leverage the spirit of the medicine in addressing contemporary issues

Monique has long been aware of the need for activism. Raised in a conservative suburb in Southern California, her mother, who couldn’t legally marry her partner at the time, was an activist for lesbian and gay rights. Monique recalls that she could see the way her mom was treated differently by disapproving strangers. “There were no other out gay or lesbian families at my schools, and homophobia was the norm back then. Living in those times, with two ‘out’ lesbians as parental figures, taught me about the different ways discrimination can manifest.”

She’s also always loved nature, noting how her room growing up was plastered in Earth and animal posters. Bringing it all together is what feels like a calling to Chinese medicine.

“I started in the ND program, and term one of year one realized naturopathic medicine was not in total alignment for me to practice,” says Monique. “Once I found Chinese medicine I was drawn to so many aspects of the program. Cultivation as a life practice to be a good practitioner and person moving through the world, the focus on symbolism and health coming from wisdom of the natural world … qigong and arts based in martial practices aimed to temper the body and mind, energetics as integrated methods to feel and treat and work with people, basic principles like yin/yang, the five phases, and cosmology, all linking people to the natural world and harmony… Each of these pulled me in.”

It wasn’t long, however, before she came to learn that some of the animal-derived products commonly used in Chinese medicine were having significant impacts on a global scale.

“Right away I learned about the problematic use of animal medicinals in Chinese medicine, and I knew then that I wanted to work from within Chinese medicine to look deeper into this relationship of animal/nature to human and back again.”

Now, Monique is using her doctoral capstone, which she’ll present this summer, as an opportunity to do just that.

“I’m interested in looking at the impacts and implications inherent in using animal medicinals in Chinese medicine. When these classical texts were written, people didn’t even have electricity. You know, there was no global industrialized anything. And now we are in the age of global reach and industrialization, and in that way, animal medicinals are now seen as a ‘product.’

“The majority of people in Chinese medicine are aligned with the natural world and harmony, that’s really what they want. [But] you can’t change what you don’t know. So if we can make it known, we can change.”

Challenging assertions and calling out fractured systems is a Portland specialty, and the NUNM campus is no exception. Just recently the university kicked off its Spring Spirit of Chinese Medicine Faculty Lecture Series to explore contemporary issues in Chinese medicine, beginning with Dr. Rebecca “Bex” Groebner’s research into the history and evolution of gender hierarchies in CCM. Dr. Groebner, who chairs Monique’s capstone project, supports the idea that living in alignment with CCM’s values necessarily means doing work that’s relevant to today’s world.

“One of the defining concepts in Classical Chinese Medicine is the idea of tianren heyi. One way to say this is that Nature and the human being act as a harmonic integrity,” says Groebner.

“We look at the relationships between the moon, the stars, the Sun, the Earth and the sea and we describe these by using symbols like yin, yang, and the five elements. We look at the relationships between the heart, liver, spleen, kidneys, and the lung and describe them with the same symbols. We can see the larger world mirrored in our bodies and our bodies mirrored in the world.

“I’m so proud of Monique for what she is doing with this capstone. Her work highlights the social and environmental impacts in the use of donkey-hide gelatin, and shows that these are in direct opposition to the promotion of health for our patients and the planet. The change we want to see in the world starts inside of each of us. Naming systems of oppression and imbalanced capitalist structures that disrupt the well-being of Nature is the first step towards health for all of us.”

Returning to the texts to find the wisdom and courage for change

While more and more practitioners are using ethically sourced herbs, the field of Chinese medicine as a whole has been slow to engage. Among the animal rights advocates controlling the narrative at a legislative level is the Brooks Institute, who recently spearheaded the introduction of a congressional bill to prohibit the sale and importation of ejiao. While the protections are critical, it worries Monique that more Chinese medicine leaders aren’t taking an active role in conservation efforts.

“We risk leaving a legacy of harm, and what’s happening now is other people are talking about it. If we don’t look at it so that we can speak to it, it’s in the hands of other people, and that’s a real disservice to our medicine. That’s in a way giving away our power. And we can do better than we’re doing, but not if we’re pretending like it’s not happening at all.”

Monique, who majored in Political Science from Humboldt State University before coming to NUNM, sees policy work and activism as part of her future. “My real dream is to split my work two-fold, to spend a few days practicing in clinic every week, and also to work on conservation efforts in Chinese medicine. In particular, I want to help bring more awareness, education, robust discussion, and policy to help link Chinese medicine to conservation efforts with a focus on right-relationship with the use of animal medicinals.”

Her ambitions are laced with both faith in the medicine and hope for the future.

“One of the reasons why I chose this medicine is because we always can come back to this relationship between people and the natural world. If Chinese medicine as a body can say we do not want to fuel these harmful practices anymore, and in fact we will not, then we can align ourselves with the principles of the natural world and our medicine, which are harmonious, and in that way we can become true stewards in our businesses and our business practices. That’s really a hopeful place to go, and what’s beautiful, is that we do have that opportunity, and we can do so much better than we’re doing right now.”