Bear necessities: Interview with Jill Robinson
- Published: 11 July 2010
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It was 1993 and a bear named Hong was unaware that she was about to dramatically impact the life of one woman and inspire the birth of an organisation that would change the face of animal welfare in Asia. Jill Robinson, founder of Animals Asia, spoke with Liz Bowie.
Jill Robinson recalls the day she met Hong. “I first saw her on my first visit to a bear farm and it changed everything in the course of my professional and personal life,” she says.
“Walking past the cages, I suddenly felt something touch my shoulder and there was a female moon bear with her paw stretched through the bars of the cage. Without thinking of the consequences I somewhat stupidly held her paw. Rather than hurting me, she gently squeezed my fingers and her beautiful brown eyes blinked sorrowfully into mine – with a message that was clear. I never saw her again, but that one bear began the dream of the rescue campaign we now have today.”
Animals Asia may most commonly be known for its work freeing bears from bile farming. Bile farming is where bears are kept in tiny cages, or ‘crush’ cages and bile is extracted for traditional medicine.
There are several methods of extraction the most recent one being that of the ‘free dripping’ technique. This technique involves making a permanent hole or fistula into a bears abdomen and gall bladder.
During milking a metal tube is poked through to break the membrane releasing the bile. This process can lead to infections, disease and death from peritonitis.
Bear bile is considered a bitter or cold medicine; it is used to remove heat from the body, also to treat high temperatures, liver complaints and sore eyes.
But as Jill says, there are many natural alternatives to bear bile that are cruelty free. “Bear bile has been used in China’s pharmacopoeia for thousands of years, yet we know that it can be replaced easily and cheaply by herbs and synthetics and that no one will die if they can’t consume the body fluid of bears; in fact, it has recently been published in Vietnam that people are now dying of liver and kidney disease after consuming bear bile - and some people taking it for ‘increasing sexual strength’ are now impotent.”
Jill says that even the Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) doctors with whom they work are furious about bear farming because, “As they say, how can the body fluid of an animal so degraded both physically and mentally, be in harmony with nature, which is at the very core of traditional medicine and health?
“The President of the American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine, Lixin Huang, demands that the bear farmers do not use traditional medicine as their excuse for farming bears, saying ‘we don’t need it’. Our Healing without Harm campaign recently saw 30 TCM shops removing bear bile from their shelves in China and some even burning it in a public demonstration in the streets. All this was in front of the local police – who also gave us the big thumbs up.”
Helping other animals in Asia
Animals Asia works on many campaigns to protect a broad spectrum of animals, including domestic, they are determined to have cats and dogs seen as friends and not food or fur. “I was sick to death of seeing pedigrees ‘designer dogs’ being thrown away on the streets when people became tired of their new toys - and with the horrific treatment of so many species in the live animal markets just across the border from Hong Kong on the Chinese mainland,” says Jill.
So she set up a foundation to help all of the animals in Asia and established some very successful community programs. “We continue to run well known programmes such as Dr Dog where dogs provide therapy for patients in need in hospitals and disabled centres, and Professor Paws which teaches children to enhance their English language skills and to respect the living world around them.”
It is also very important to Jill that animals are not considered commodities but a species as valid as humans. “Animals share a remarkable similarity to us with their capacity for pain and suffering, and a complex range of emotions every bit as profound as those we experience. That we treat them so dismissively, so cruelly, as ‘things’, rather than sentient creatures, is a shameful reflection on the human race,” she says. “So another reason for founding Animals Asia was to show that species comprise of individuals with needs and emotions as ours.”
It may be difficult to understand how Jill and the many involved in Animals Asia find the inspiration and motivation to continue their work when faced with what may seem like never ending issues of cruelty.
“To see our bears today playing with each other in dizzy bear bundles of joy is the inspiration for us all,” Jill explains. “I often say that as much as we rescue the bears, they rescue us too and help us to understand why we are here.
“Bears such as Jasper who was caged and crushed flat to the bars for 15 years is now called the peacemaker of the sanctuary as he breaks up the odd disagreement in his enclosure and welcomes in newly rescued bears. He loves to suck peanut butter from my fingers too - how can he be so forgiving to us as a species after all his torture at the hands of humans on the farm?
“The more bears that arrive in to our sanctuary, the more we can build the case against bear farming with the evidence of cruel and illegal practices – and finally bring it to an end. That is what keeps us going.”
Certainly their achievements help to keep the momentum going. “In China, where we have closed over 40 farms and rescued 276 bears from these hideous farms our biggest priority is to bring more provinces over to our ‘bear-farm-free club’.
“To date, through our work with the China Wildlife Conservation Association in Beijing, 20 provinces have closed all their bile farms and pledged to stay farm-free. We've also just rescued 10 bears from Shandong Province in China. Eight of the bears had been wearing full metal jackets covering latex catheters embedded into their abdomens and gall bladders which the farmer had ripped out hours before we arrived.
“One bear, Oliver, was so close to death that our vets had to perform life-saving surgery in the back of the truck on the four-day/night journey home. Luckily he made it and having lived in a tiny cage for 30 years of his life is now enjoying some tender loving care at our sanctuary.
“In Vietnam, we are working to complete a new sanctuary where nearly 60 bears are currently being rehabilitated and we are campaigning specifically for the release of 24 bears being held against regulations on a bear farm at Ha Long Bay.
“Just today we’ve rescued two tiny 4kg cubs from an illegal bear farm in Dien Bien Province – the authorities were enormously helpful and again we can see the ripples of change spreading out and accelerating the goal,” says Jill.
Animals Asia has the status of being the only NGO to strike a deal with the Chinese government regarding bear farming. “It took years of lobbying and building trust with the Chinese authorities to see any progress, but it was worth the wait,” Jill says.
“After working with Beijing’s China Wildlife Conservation Association since 1993, in 2000 we signed a landmark agreement with the Chinese authorities to rescue 500 bears from farms and to work towards an end to the industry through, among other things, promoting herbal alternatives to bear bile.
“They were the main force instigating the ‘bear farm free’ provincial initiative towards the end of last year, and are fully supportive in continuing this project to yet more provinces across the country.”
But amongst all the successes, there will always be obstacles and challenges making their work difficult.
“We face so many challenges in our work, but the most serious remains the shroud of silence from those in high power in China who could so easily steer a practical and beneficial change,” says Jill.
“Our evidence shows that the mortality rate of bears is unusually high due to liver cancer. Pathologists with whom we work suggest that the bears' death and health problems relate to the methods of crude surgery and bile extraction on the farms, and further suggest that this could be severely detrimental to the health of humans who consume such contaminated bile.
“They suggest a ‘chain reaction’ that sees bear bile not healing, but harming the health of those who drink the body fluid of such sick and dying bears. Rather like the melamine scandal, which saw babies and children losing their lives from drinking contaminated milk, we are seeing bile containing pus, urine, faeces and cancer cells being turned into products that people are ingesting into their bodies with goodness knows what detrimental effects.”
Thank fully, the Chinese media and its citizens are speaking out about the plight of animals like never before.
“I’ve been working in animal welfare in China for 25 years now, and never before have I seen such a surge in awareness from the media about animal cruelty,” says Jill. “It’s being talked about on radio talk-shows and on TV, it’s in newspapers and magazines – and some of China’s most popular blogs and chatrooms are often flooded with comments from people upset about animal cruelty cases, or discussing the need for animal welfare laws.
“But most amazing of all, people are bravely taking to the streets to condemn animal cruelty, speaking out like never before. These brave, caring people are the best hope yet for the country’s abused animals. And because of them, I believe that now we have the best chance yet of creating real change.”
What you can do to help
Jill has proven that her passion for protecting animals is relentless, she shares that there are many things we as consumers can do to support Animals Asia and the animals.
“We are killing this world and its species, breath by breath and this should compel us to make some changes for the benefit of all. Be a compassionate shopper and consumer. Consider your purchases wisely and don't buy fur, ivory, reptile skin, or Chinese medicine products containing any animal parts. Check in every shop that your purchases are ‘cruelty free’.
“Don’t visit circuses or zoos that have performing wild animals - all you will learn from such cruel and demeaning performances are the size, shape and colour of the animals as they are led out for the only exercise they will see in the day.
“Once you leave, majestic tigers, elephants, bears and primates are caged and chained and prevented from engaging in any of the natural characteristics and behaviour they would exhibit in the wild. Think of where they would rather be - whipped and beaten into performing degrading tricks, or leading their natural lives in the wild.
“As we continue rescuing more bears, obviously our costs will rise, so another urgent priority is fundraising. This is the best way people can help – either giving whatever they can afford, or joining one of our support groups to help raise funds. Even just telling everyone they know about the moon bears’ suffering and directing them to our website would be an enormous help,” Jill says.
Jill Robinson will be touring Australia, visiting Perth, Adelaide, Hobart, Melbourne, Sydney, Canberra and Brisbane from 7-16 July. Visit the Animals Asia website for details.