As someone with a pretty strong interest in improving animal welfare it always excites me when I get an opportunity to take a peek into another campaign, whether it's here in the UK or much further afield.
On my travels I've been extremely lucky to have volunteered helping donkeys in the Middle East, dogs and cats in post-tsunami Thailand, even neutering clinics in Mumbai slums and the Peruvian Amazon, so when I was invited out to Animals Asia's moon bear sanctuary in deepest China I couldn't wait to get on that plane.
Like many of you reading this, I've been a huge Jill Robinson fan for a while, watching and admiring from afar her incredibly brave work fighting animal cruelty in the Far East, and trying to end China's barbaric trade in bear bile- a substance painfully 'milked' from these poor creatures - tragically much sought after in traditional medicine.
Moonbears, so-called because of their moon-shaped crescent on their chest, imprisoned in tiny cages on horrific bile farms, are commonly starved, dehydrated, and suffer multiple diseases such as malignant tumours that ultimately kill them.
Wonderful charity Animals Asia, founded by Jill in 1994, now devotes all their time, patience, passion, resources, and energy to ending this horrific practice as well as helping improve the welfare of all animals in China and Vietnam.
On arrival in Chengdu, via Shanghai, it was already dark at the sanctuary so Jill and a few of her team took me on a quick torch-lit tour of the bears' sleeping quarters.
Peaceful in their dens, curled up in individual bunks, some snoring, some slightly stirring to see who was watching them; this really was a breathtaking introduction into the feeling of 'freedom' experienced by these previously tortured souls.
To have access to the space, comfort, kindness, luxury, soft bedding, and food compared to a cramped rusty evil cage was reflected in a sense of overwhelming tranquility I've rarely ever experienced - and I'd only just arrived.
Dawn the following morning meant being woken by unfamiliar bird sounds and much rustling from outside. Pulling back the curtains revealed 1, 2, 3, 4... lots of moonbears already out in their enclosures having fun, playing, even climbing trees, and basically just being bears, and not bile machines.
Now as my dear friend, fellow animal welfare campaigner and actor Peter Egan will almost certainly agree, you can sit mesmerized by these beautiful creatures for hours on end.
Individual markings, personalities, and behaviours are truly fascinating to observe, especially knowing what torture they've all been through, and more importantly, to remind us of the ones still in those places, hundreds if not thousands of miles away, suffering every minute for their precious bile.
Jill's tour of the sanctuary began with a visit to Asia, a very friendly elderly girl on medication for severe arthritis. Another oldie (over 30 years old) Crystal who in her previous life had all her claws and teeth painfully removed or cut back, before being fitted with a latex catheter exiting via her hip, Jill points out, "to keep the dangerous head end from the end being milked."
Another bear with joint problems Chi Chi seemed content when I handfed him some fresh apple through the bars of his safe den. Bebe even had a scar from growing into the bars of her cage.
As I met more and more bears it soon became more than apparent that every single rescued moonbear on Jill's sanctuary is respected as an individual, with their own individual needs, treatments, medicated milkshakes, and environmental requirements.
This could not have been more obvious when I witnessed the skilled nurses taking a blood sample from Bamse bear. Within two patient years - and a lot of strawberry condensed milkshakes - this magnificent creature once abused by humans and greed, was now so trusting as to place his arm in an open plastic tube and allow a blood sample to be taken - an incredible achievement by the dedicated staff here.
Furthermore, when routinely moved around the sanctuary between enclosures, bears must enter and be temporarily confined in, small transit cages similar in size to the ones they were once tortured in. But they do it, every time, they trust humans here, breathtaking to witness, and an experience made more fun after each short caged journey by the guaranteed chocolate sauce reward!
Rehabilitation also means effective behavioural modification techniques such as positive treat reinforcement, regular worming and weighing, and conditioning using a ringing bell; meaning that these highly intelligent moonbears now enjoy a happy healthy routine enhanced by a carefully planned environmental enrichment programme.
A variety of tasty foods including sweet fruits, fresh vegetables, nuts, dog biscuits, yoghurt, jam, honey, and fermented tofu, as well as toys and flavoured ice cubes, are all hidden in different places in their enclosures every day to stimulate normal foraging patterns, as well as reducing behavioural problems too.
This also means, that with no competition for food, most adapt easily to living in fairly large social groups, sharing climbing frames and paddling pools, digging in the soil, with some just preferring to keep their own company.
Sadly though, many of the rescued bears in the sanctuary will still pass away due to health problems caused by effects of long-term confinement in tiny cages, surgical mutilation, and bile extraction methods suffered on the farms, rather than old age.
On the tour Jill explains every backstory to every bear. They are her family, shared with the rest of the 160 members of staff working here; all making sure these rescued moonbears receive the very best care and attention. We are reminded en route of the torture.
Seeing the pile of empty rusty cages that each bear has been extracted from is a shock to the system, as is the collection of metal tubes successfully surgically removed over the years, not to mention the 'full metal jacket' worn by brave Jasper for 15 years to stop him turning around in his cage and removing his own metal pipe.
We reach the graveyard and all fall silent. An overwhelming sense of sadness embraces as we stand in front of dozens of moon bear graves, all individually marked by yellow crescents (rather than crucifixes) and their names.
Hearing Jill's personal accounts of each bear, possibly the most moving words I've ever heard, and a whirlwind of emotions arrives making me sad, angry this abuse even happens, but also relieved these bears are now at peace after enjoying their second lives provided by Jill and her team.
Moon bear funerals mean everything stops to honour these poor creatures. Every member of staff is present. Some read poems, some leave toys, others lay flowers, with everyone paying their respects to praise these stoic animals that have suffered so many years of abuse on bear bile farms.
As we make our way towards the memorial garden we pass a statue of a moon bear playing with a butterfly sculpted and donated by Suzie Marsh in the centre of the graveyard. Engraved in grey marble it reads "Be at PEACE free from terror & pain. Be whole again playful & happy. Be FREE." There are no words that can express this place better.
Every bear lucky enough to be rescued from his or her bile farm and arrive at the sanctuary is both physically and mentally damaged.
On her many visits to bear bile farms Jill has seen her fair share of open wounds, infections, hernias, and other injuries too disturbing to even report, but channels all these emotions, frustrations, and anger into the phenomenal work Animals Asia achieves here; "Crying is a natural tap" she explains.
Even after years being rehabilitated here on the sanctuary some moonbears still occasionally show stereotypical behaviours, coping techniques developed to help deal with stress or likely flashbacks to their previous lives of torture.
All bears on the sanctuary are all given a thorough healthcheck every two years and I was fortunate enough to play a very small part in one for moon bear Harley.
In a routine healthcheck the bear is fully sedated much like (and incidentally with the same drugs) your dog and cat would be for a procedure such as a minor stitch-up.
When unconscious the patient is then moved onto the treatment table and given a full physical examination by the resident vet. This includes musculoskeletal exam (limbs and joint mobility), blood sample (liver, kidney, etc.), urine, ECG (heart), eyes, ears, chest X-rays, teeth and gums, abdominal ultrasound (to help detect signs of liver cancer).
Being so close to a moon bear is an experience I'll never forget. To touch, smell, and even take a blood sample from Harley was a unique experience that's hard to describe. With only three limbs (he lost his left leg in a trap - sadly a common injury here), Harley wasn't in bad shape healthwise.
A lower canine tooth required surgical removal and his abdominal ultrasound showed the classic pattern of fibrous adhesions on the liver - permanent signs of blunt liver trauma from the horrors inflicted by bile extraction - but thankfully no signs of liver cancer which claims the lives of so many bears here.
And, as if all of Jill's work with rescuing and rehabilitating bears wasn't enough, we're then driven into downtown Chengdu to witness another arm of the fantastic Animals Asia team - their 'Doctor Dog' therapy programme.
These special assistance dogs visit many vulnerable and lonely people improving their lives. In 2013 alone over 14,000 people were visited while their 'Professor Paws' scheme reached children in many schools, sharing the message of caring for animals.
Today we're at a blind institute called 'Dialogue in the Dark' joined by two golden retrievers Ruishi and Nini as well as miniature schnauzer Wang Wang who all take turns in being stroked by blind people - another truly remarkable experience.
Animals Asia were also on hand to provide dog food and veterinary medicine to local dogs affected by a recent earthquake and are active in fighting the popular dog meat trade, even trying to stop performing animals too.
Totally committed to animal welfare, Animals Asia raise awareness wherever and whenever possible both locally in China and Vietnam, globally in UK, America, and Australia too, and with social media as well.
All in all, the work Animals Asia is doing is phenomenal. It's one thing rescuing tortured bears from horrific bile farms but a totally different ball game trying to re-educate the public and change their behaviour regarding animal welfare and cruelty - especially in a massive country with such strong and ancient traditions.
I can't thank Jill and her incredible team enough for looking after me in Chengdu, as well as my travel buddy Leean from Love Sniffy's dog treats. It was a life-changing experience and I feel so privileged to have been able to witness Animals Asia's work first-hand and work alongside such a skilled, committed, and passionate team - those bears have totally got under my skin so I'm already planning my next trip back.
Animal welfare is about caring. It's about showing empathy and all working together as a team to make sure animals are respected and looked after whether it's bear bile farming, puppy farming, badger culling, or fox hunting.
We have so many resources now that can help animals, from volunteering in person, donating money, to simply sharing information on social media and raising awareness.
I urge you all to get involved in animal welfare, and make 2014 the biggest year yet for animals and finally making cruelty a thing of the past.