Q&A with Jill Robinson MBE, Dr.med.vet. h.c.
(The Founder of Animals Asia)
1.How did you first learn about the bear bile industry?
I had heard a little about bear bile farming some years after arriving in Hong Kong in 1985, but it was my first visit to a bear farm in the south of China that began the journey of where we are now – as vivid today as it was all those years ago in 1993. The sights, sounds and smell were unforgettable as I stepped into the bile extraction basement, utterly unprepared for what I would see. There were 32 Asiatic black bears (or moon bears after the lemony crescent moon of fur on their chest) staring bleakly out from rusting “coffin” cages. I heard strange “popping” vocalisations and the closer I moved to the cages the louder these vocalisations became. I’ll never forget thinking, with some degree of shame, that what I was learning from these bears was the lesson of fear. To them I was just another human approaching their cage, with the intention of doing them harm. How could they tell the difference between me and the farmer who cruelly milked them of their bile?
I walked around that terrible place with mixed emotions ranging from fear, shock, and anger. At one point, looking at bears with scared and skeletal bodies, smashed teeth, and abdomens with 4-6 inch metal catheters protruding from them, I must have brushed too closely to a cage, and felt something gently touch my shoulder. Turning around in fright I came face to face with a female moon bear who had her paw through the bars of the cage. Rather than taking the sensible course and leaving her alone, it just seemed the most natural response to hold her paw, and I can feel her claws now as they just squeezed my fingers rather than grabbing and hurting my hand. For just a few seconds I looked in to her beautiful brown eyes knowing instinctively that there was nothing I could do to help her, but knowing too that this one individual bear had begun something which would change my personal and professional path. I never saw her again, but called her Hong (Cantonese for bear) and so began the journey of the Moon Bear Rescue and the campaign to end bear farming.
2. What led to the formation of Animals Asia?
Exactly that visit on the farm. I couldn’t remove the vision of that poor bear’s face, or the physical and psychological suffering of all the other bears from my memory, and felt that they would be best represented by a local group of people who had either been born in Asia, or had lived here for years.
Hence, Animals Asia was begun in 1998 by five of us who had a major remit of ending the bear farming industry once and for all. We also were very passionate about ending the trade in dog and cat consumption in Asia and those two projects became our spearhead campaigns.
The years leading up to Animals Asia being founded were certainly not wasted either. During that time I began Dr Dog – an animal therapy programme – and embarked on in-depth research of the bear farming industry too. Relations were formed with government officials and departments in China with people who would become our government partners once Animals Asia was formed. Traditional Chinese Medicine doctors were interviewed at length and I found to my surprise that bear bile not only worked, but was synthesised (not from bears) and sold by the tonne worldwide.
3. How many bears have Animals Asia rescued?
In China we have rescued 285 bears and in Vietnam 118 – 403 in total
4. Do you know how many bears remain on bear bile farms?
In China more than 10,000 bears are suffering cage confinement on the farms, and in Vietnam the number is approximately 2,400
5. Have you detected a change in attitudes towards bear bile farming since you began this work?
Our campaign has now run for over 20 years – and I must say that it’s satisfying to see such an explosion of support in China today.
From the outset, this campaign has seen a multi-pronged strategy aimed at collaboration with the government, the TCM community (doctors, pharmacists etc), the media, celebrities, academics, universities, schools and of course the general public at large. Now bear bile farming is an “issue” and we know too from surveys that 87% of Chinese people are against bear bile farming and are willing to play their part in ending it.
For example, our online campaign in China to recruit a “Bear Rescue Corps” to assist Animals Asia in ending bear bile farming has already recruited over 2,400 activists keen to play their part. Every day the Bear Rescue Corps is coming up with new ways to help – from lawyers looking at the legality of bile farms, to drug industry workers keen to promote ‘healing without harm’ among colleagues and pharmacies.
In 2012 the issue of bear farming was officially one of the top ten discussion points of China, and in 2013 our Love Moon Bear activities alone reached 30,000 people, with schools and the Education Authorities welcoming us in to talk to their students. By assisting them to develop their own public education campaigns we’re reaching thousands more.
Recently the explosion of newspaper, TV, radio and Internet stories has seen citizens pouring on line and demanding justice for the bears. The advertising campaigns rolling out across the country, and people everywhere signing pledges never to buy or consume bear bile. Chinese medicine shops and doctors promising never to sell or prescribe bear bile -and ridding their shelves of all products containing it (over 1,000 so far). Press conferences with doctors stating that the alternatives are just as effective – perhaps more so and themselves calling on the industry to end.
6. Recently a bear bile farmer asked Animals Asia to rescue 130 bears and to turn his farm into a sanctuary, can you tell us about this.
Just last month we held a major press conference in Beijing together with a former bear farmer, who is also a Chinese government official, and who is willing to turn his farm in to a sanctuary because, in his words, bear bile farming is both cruel and hopeless.
Besides converting the farm, we are also rescuing approximately 30 bears back to our current sanctuary in Chengdu on road trip of over 1,200 kms. Here they will all undergo major abdominal surgery to remove grotesquely compromised gall bladders, and receive other veterinary intervention, before the long road of integration with other bears in our great outdoors.
This is our message to the government and people of China that, together, we can collaborate on a win win solution that benefits the bears, the farmers and the reputation of the country – and relegate this medieval practice to the history books of shame.
7. Do you think the day will come when bear bile farming is no longer practised, if “Yes”, how far off is that day?
Yes I do – as said above, it seems the tide is, at last, turning.
With over two decades of research under our belts, and after rescuing over 400 previously tortured bears in China and Vietnam, Animals Asia has been central in providing damning evidence that simply exposes the truth of a species cruelly exploited for its bile.
Consequently, the public in China are taking the lead like never before, absolutely outraged against this torture of one of their endangered and protected species. One Chinese officials said to me many years ago “start the debate in China” and it is this focus that we have adopted since then, and now see people across all levels of society voicing their disgust about a practice that should be relegated to the history books of shame. I sincerely hope that in my lifetime bear farming will end forever.
8. Is support available to encourage the remaining bear bile farmers to switch to alternative ways of sustaining a livelihood?
Yes indeed, this is an initiative we have been working on since the word go – showing that no-one need suffer as a result of our work – and why the Nanning rescue is now being promoted so positively both within China and across the world.
We have always compensated the farmers in China for their bears – ensuring that we receive their original license in return, in order that they can no longer continue to farm bears (the Chinese Government stopped issuing licenses for bear farms in 1994). Consequently the whole farm has closed and we have rescued every one of those bears.
Today, we have gone one step further and are now embarking on our Peace by Piece campaign, closing the farm, rescuing some of the bears back to our sanctuary in Chengdu, and converting the farm in Nanning with the remainder of the bears to a sanctuary there. This again is the blueprint of a plan that, for the first time ever, sees the potential of farms to freedom for thousands of bears here in China.
In Vietnam, where bear farming is illegal, and where bear farmers have been continuing to profit from a business that is no longer allowed, we do not pay compensation for the bears, but welcome them to our sanctuary when the government request our help.
9. Could you tell as about the other work Animals Asia does?
Yes indeed :
Our work focuses on three major programmes:
End Bear Bile Farming
Animals Asia works to end the barbaric bear bile trade, which sees over 10,000 bears – mainly moon bears but also sun bears and brown bears – kept on bile farms in China, and around 2,400 in Vietnam.
Cat and Dog Welfare
Animals Asia works to end the trade in dogs and cats for food in China, and lobbies to improve the welfare of companion animals and promote humane population management.
Zoos and Safari Parks
Animals Asia campaigns for an end to abusive animal practices in zoos and safari parks in China, and works closely with governing authorities to improve animal management and increase awareness of the welfare needs of captive animals.
10. How can people support the work of Animals Asia?
Peace by Piece is Animals Asia’s new landmark campaign to help rescue and rehabilitate over 130 moon bears in Nanning, China. These bears have been kept in horrendous conditions – many trapped in tiny cages from birth – and farmed for their bile.
Animals Asia is taking over custody and care of the bears, leasing the land and facilities. This will be the largest rescue of its kind in the world and now we need YOUR support to turn this farm into a home.
Please help us give these bears the freedom they deserve by donating just US$30 (or more if you can) to a piece of the sanctuary shown on the map on our website.
By donating, you will be part of the largest rescue ever undertaken – and claiming your piece of history in the making!
With Vietnam bear farming, we still need your voice even though the practice is illegal, because we continue to build rescue enclosures for the bears still remaining on the farms, and work hard on the public education programmes so necessary for changing hearts and minds.
Of course our Cat and Dog Welfare, and Zoos and Safari Park programmes need help too – and can only continue if people everywhere join us in campaigns that are truly effective and making a difference in Asia.
Much more information can be found here: www.animalsasia.org
TEDxPearlRiver – Jill Robinson – Welfare of Animals YouTube talk, approx 16 min duration