By: Brooke Chenoweth
Over the past 20 years, Animals Asia has grown into a global organisation awarded and recognised as a world leader in the prevention of bear bile farming and in promoting moon bear health and rehabilitation. Ahead of their supporter-led “Bear It All” fundraiser, we sat down with JILL ROBINSON MBE, Animals Asia founder and CEO, to find out more.
Jill, you arrived in Hong Kong from the UK way back in 1985, when I imagine attitudes towards animal welfare were quite different.
Yes, I’ve been involved in animal welfare in Hong Kong for nearly 30 years, and I’m happy to say the situation for animals here is far better than when I arrived. Community education and public awareness campaigns – those of Animals Asia and of other animal welfare organisations – have played a big part in this.
Tell us about some of your earlier work.
After moving to Hong Kong, I spent 12 years working in Asia as a consultant for the International Fund for Animal Welfare. Repeatedly faced with scenes of widespread animal cruelty, I decided to introduce the concept of “animal welfare through people welfare” and founded “Dr Dog” in Hong Kong in 1991 – the first animal-therapy programme of its kind in Asia.
You’ve mentioned that launching Dr Dog is one of your proudest achievements. Why is it so close to your heart?
After many rejections from hospitals and care homes, the Duchess of Kent Children’s Hospital agreed to allow me to bring “one dog, to spend one hour, in the garden”. A few days later, while doctors, nursing staff and the media looked on, my lovely golden retriever, Max, sat patiently in the grounds as disabled children were brought out to see him. One paraplegic teenager was wheeled to the front and, as Max rose up on his hind legs and gently placed his massive golden paws onto the side of the bed, the boy’s face lit up with a radiant smile – and Dr Dog was born. The programme now also runs in three mainland Chinese cities, along with a similar programme for schools called Professor Paws.
Animals Asia has been helping bears and campaigning against bear bile farming for nearly 20 years now. How did it all start?
The spark for Animals Asia came in 1993 when I visited a bear farm in southern China, as part of my work with the International Fund for Animal Welfare. I’d heard rumours about these farms that extract bile from the bears’ gall bladders for use in traditional medicine, but nothing had prepared me for the medieval horrors I saw that day. Cage after tiny cage of tortured bears, unable to turn around or even stand up, each with a rusty catheter protruding from the abdomen. One bear stretched her paw out through the cage bars, and I (rather stupidly in hindsight) took her paw in my hand. I made her a promise that I’d do everything I could to end this terrible industry.
After years of negotiating with Chinese officials, researching alternatives to bear bile and raising funds, Animals Asia was formed in 1998 by a few passionate people in the back garden of my Sai Kung home. Today, we’re a global organisation with offices around the world and almost 330 staff. Most of our employees work at our bear sanctuaries in China and Vietnam, where hundreds of rescued bears are living out their lives.
Animals Asia signed a landmark agreement with Chinese authorities in 2000 to rescue moon bears and put an end to bile farming. Once the bears are rescued how do you ensure that those behind the practice don’t go back to their old ways?
Under the agreement, farmers are compensated financially so they can either retire or set up in another business. Their licences are taken away permanently. Our main focus over the next two years will be the Nanning project – transforming a bear bile farm into a sanctuary for the 130 bears trapped inside. This project goes far beyond the walls of the Nanning farm. It will be a model for other bile farmers around China who want to leave the industry, and a demonstrable solution for ending the industry once and for all.
Your first bear rescue in October 2000 must have been a memorable experience.
One of the bears, Andrew, was the first of more than 60 rake-thin moon bears to arrive at our new Chengdu sanctuary. He made an immediate impression. The other bears either cowered in terror or thrashed wildly about their cages. Andrew stayed calm. It was pandemonium, but this three-legged bear just laid on his back, picking at the bits of metal holding his rusty cage together. It was as if he knew he was about to start a new life. He knew he was safe.
You’re a Council Member of the World Federation of Chinese Medicine Societies (WFCMS) Herbal Committee, and a former member of Hong Kong’s Animal Welfare Advisory Group. Apart from rescuing bears and setting up sanctuaries, what else does your work involve?
Animals Asia works with both Western and traditional Asian doctors to promote the use of herbal and synthetic alternatives to bear bile. We emphasise that alternatives are cheaper and equally effective as bile and carry none of the risk associated with consuming bile from an animal being kept alive by a cocktail of antibiotics.
In 2009, our work with the China Wildlife Conservation Association and provincial governments saw 18 of China’s 31 provinces and regions sign a pledge to remain bear-farm free. In April 2010, Shandong became China’s 20th bear-farm free province.
We’re very fortunate to have amazing staff – totally dedicated veterinary and bear management teams, inspirational education and outreach teams and of course our hardworking teams around the world raising awareness and much-needed funds.
Officially, 10,000 bears are still trapped in farms throughout China, but Animals Asia suspects the figure could be higher. In Vietnam, around 2,300 bears are still kept on bile farms, even though bile extraction is now illegal there. How can our readers get involved?
There are many ways – from volunteering for our Dr Dog and Professor Paws programmes to spreading the word on social media, running a marathon or attending a fundraising event such as Bear It All in November. See the Get Involved section of our website for inspiration.