It was 20 years ago when Jill Robinson MBE first walked into a bear bile farm and uncovered one of Asia's darkest secrets. The young animal lover found sweet, Asiatic black bears incarcerated in tiny wire cages with rusting metal catheters implanted in their abdomens through which bile was being extracted for use in traditional medicine.
The mutilated bears' suffering shocked her, 'It's a torture chamber..a hell hole for animals' she wrote at the time. Moved to the core by one hurting bear who from inside his cage, reached his hand out to touch her, Jill knew she could not turn away and Animal Asia was born; a tireless force with a mission to end the barbaric practice of bear bile farming.
In celebration of the organisation's twentieth anniversary, I speak with founder and CEO Jill Robinson about humans' treatment of animals, altering Asians' attitude towards our fellow creatures, her stunningly beautiful children's book and a heart melting, forgiving bear called Jasper.
Q Powerful voices including David Attenborough, Desmond Morris, Richard Dawkins, Brian May, Ofir Drori and Peta strongly believe that humans have taken their 'superiority' as a given for too long, leading to gross mistreatment of animals
A I completely agree.
Too often we see animals as "things" to be exploited and abused at our whim, without comprehending that they are living, sentient beings with desires and emotions as profound and important to them as they are to us. As more awareness now comes to the fore that our actions are responsible for the health of the environment, so it must be recognised that our treatment of animals is also connected with the fragile state of this earth.
Now is the time for change. For example, we know that no Arctic explorer has worn fur for decades to keep warm, and yet we continue to slaughter millions and millions of animals each year for our vanity. Fur production also pollutes the environment and is egregiously cruel.
Some people may also laugh at the concept of questioning snakeskin shoes, boots and bags, but if they could see how cruelly these reptiles are treated and slaughtered too, again simply for us to "look good", surely our conscience must tell us these practices are wrong. We farm billions of animals each year - pumping them with growth hormones to make them accelerate in size, and feeding them with antibiotics to keep them alive (because they are so sick as a result of intensive farming practices), using land for their feed which could be used to grow food for the starving, all to make meat that is being consumed in massive amounts and clearly doing us harm.We breed and cruelly "farm" dogs and cats to our "taste" - disabling and disfiguring them to conform to the colour, size and even style that we like. So many pedigrees, especially, suffer from multiple deformities, facial disfigurements and problems of their joints and bones. In the US there are more tigers alive under captive conditions than there are anywhere in the wild and many of them suffering in inadequate conditions, light years away from how they would be enjoying life in their natural habitats. This is simply a result of humans' desire for exotic pets and "entertaining" animal performances.Animal performances everywhere see audiences looking at animals made to perform cruel and degrading tricks - and learning nothing about them except their size, colour and shape.And of course the exploitation of noble majestic species such as bears, cruelly farmed for their bile, which is used in products so utterly unnecessary today.
Q What is bear bile and why is it in demand?
A Bear farming began in China in the early 1980's when the Government endorsed a practice which they believed would save wild bears from being killed for their whole gall bladders (literally bags of "liquid gold"). That well-intentioned initiative was deeply flawed after bear farming boomed - and saw farmers continuing to take bears from the wild to replenish their stock. It also saw consumers who preferred the "real thing" persist in their demand for the wild caught bile of poached bears. In China there are officially 7,000 endangered moon bears legally farmed (but we believe that the actual figures are closer to 10,000 bears). In Vietnam, despite bear farming being an illegal trade, some 2,400 moon bears (and some sun bears) remain caged on farms across the country, while their bile is extracted and sold on the black market to dedicated consumers within the country, as well as from China and South Korea.
Battling against this practice, in a campaign to end bear farming in both China and Vietnam, Animals Asia team members and I have been working in China since the early 1990's and now have 285 bears rescued into our sanctuary in Chengdu, and 115 bears now flourishing in our sanctuary in Tam Dao National park, near Hanoi in Vietnam. Such is the extent of the damage from the crude surgery and techniques of bile extraction, that every formerly farmed bear requires the removal of their chronically inflamed and infected gall bladder.
In China the bears are often deliberately abused by having their teeth cut back to gum level (exposing pulp and nerves) and their paw tips hacked away to stop the claws from growing - thus painfully rendering them less dangerous during the excruciating process of milking their bile.
Many of the bears grow into the bars of cages which hold them immobile for anything up to 30 years (the approximately life span of bears in the wild). They suffer psychologically too and have open wounds and scars on heads from where they have smashed their foreheads against the bars of the cage, engaging in miserable, self-mutilating, stereotypic behavior (stereotypic behaviour is seen in bears and other animals that have spent a long time in captivity, without enrichment and in stressful situations, and manifests itself in repetitive movements and actions). The bears will also often chew on the bars of the cage, breaking their own teeth in the process and suffer for years as another agonising impact of bear farming is endured.
Yet bear farming continues - even while eminent doctors of Traditional Medicine object to the promotion of bear bile and emphasize that the mental and physical harm towards these endangered species cannot be in harmony with nature, as Chinese medicine dictates.
Q Do you feel things are progressing in the right direction?
A Bear bile farming is now a major issue - especially in China. Even though legal there, the public are becoming more aware of this hideous practice, and understanding that it is not only caging and killing the bears in huge numbers, but potentially harmful to people too. The bile these sick and diseased animals produce is ghastly and oozing with contaminants - which sees over 30% of the bears eventually dying of liver cancer. Shameful when one acknowledges that herbs and synthetics are cheap and easy alternatives to replace bear bile. Over the years, we have worked intensively with Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) Associations and practitioners who show much support in promoting these alternatives in the belief that using bear bile today goes against the core principle of Chinese medicine, which is to be in harmony with nature. Our Healing without Harm campaign has many projects under its umbrella including engaging with thousands of doctors and pharmacists in China who are ridding their shelves of bear bile and promising only to prescribe the herbal alternatives.
Our press conferences with doctors state that the alternatives are just as effective, and call on the industry to end.In addition we continue working to influence the Chinese government to pass and enforce laws to end bear farming through lobbying and continued development of relationships at central and provincial levels. This includes our increasing engagement each year with national legislators (National People's Congress) and government officials within state and provincial forestry departments, the China Wildlife Conservation Association, health and drug authorities, the traditional Chinese medicine industry and commercial administrations. As the components of our strategic plan come together, and the country of China becomes more outraged with the practice, this coming year is especially critical in the ongoing push for bear farming to end.
Q What can people outside China and Vietnam do to help?
A Anyone can help the bears by signing up to participate in our "Sponsor a bear" or "Befriend a bear" programs.
Through our "Sponsor a bear" program, supporters can sponsor one of our rescued bears. A small monthly donation provides a rescued bear with all the basic care they need to recover and lead healthy and happy lives of freedom at one of our sanctuaries. Our special care bears, with long term or mental damage, are a little more costly to care for and can also be sponsored.
Our "Befriend a bear" program offers supporters the opportunity to provide the bears with special treats to keep them happy and occupied - treats like fruit ice blocks, rubber kongs, and tofu-filled bamboo shoots. These enrichment items help keep their intelligent minds busy and provide extra nourishment along the way. Without constant stimulation for their minds and bodies, rescued bears would soon get bored or depressed. Participation in the "Befriend a bear" program helps keep this from happening.
Q What gives you strength to fight, with such continued stamina and conviction?
A Because I can finally see the tide turning. In 2012 the issue of bear farming was officially one of the top ten discussion points of China. It is an issue, a talking point and something that is growing in debate each year. In truth, animal welfare itself is becoming something that is debated more intensely as the country develops, particularly now that there are over 100 animal welfare groups here compared to when I first began working in China in 1985, when there was one! Today we are seeing support at all levels of media, government, celebrities, lawyers, doctors, etc.
Even students - thousands and thousands of them - have been engaging in public exhibitions and even squeezing themselves into cages in public places, emulating the suffering of the bears.
The harrowing 45 minute undercover documentary, "Moon Bear", shot by an independent film crew that has been viewed over 1.4 million times, and is shocking people to the core. Now being described as the "Chinese Cove," it shows bears suffering and dying in tragic circumstances, in both legal and illegal farms, bringing about unprecedented support from the public against bear farming. The response to the film, so clearly exemplifying Chinese opposition to bear farming, is a source of encouragement.The explosion of newspaper, TV, radio and Internet stories in China about bear bile farming has seen a massive online outcry demanding justice for the bears..and of course our victory in Vietnam, where we finally won against the threat of eviction that had been hanging over our heads following a so-called entertainment company seeking to construct a commercial property on our sanctuary land. It was a hard won "David and Goliath" campaign that saw people in Vietnam, and tens of thousands more around the world, rise to our defence with a final decision from the Prime Minister himself announcing that we could stay.
Q What do you perceive as the greatest obstacle in your mission at the moment?
A Persuading those in power to listen to the real concerns of bear farming from welfare, conservation and human health points of view. For some time we have been particularly concerned with the high percentage of this endangered species of bears (moon bears) dying from liver cancer - whether newly rescued, or those that have been living at our sanctuary for a number of years. The mortality rate is now too high to be mere coincidence.
In addition to the high incidence of liver cancer, the gall bladders we remove from the bears are compromised in one or more of the following ways: cholelithiasis (gall stones), foreign objects in the lumen of the gall bladder, polyp formation on the mucosa (inner lining of the gall bladder), strictures in the gall bladder wall, and obstruction of the cystic duct and partial herniation of the gall bladder wall.
Thus, with all of the evidence pointing to the clear fact that bile farm bears are severely malnourished, with chronically diseased livers, inflamed and infected gall bladders, and higher than normal incidences of liver cancer, the question must continue to be raised as to the human health impact of consuming such contaminated bile taken from such sick and diseased bears.
Q will farmers' livelihood suffer with farm closures?
A One of the long term aspects of our campaign in China has been closing the farms while compensating the farmers too. No farmer's livelihood has suffered as a result of our work. In return for the compensation, we insist on having the license to farm bears confiscated (China has not issued new licenses since 1994), and closing the entire farm with all of the bears confiscated into our care. These farmers can then never legally farm bears again. In Vietnam we do not pay compensation considering that the industry there is illegal.
Q Your new book Jasper's Story is getting wonderful reviews, what inspired you to write it?
A The children's book is about a bear called Jasper.
He arrived with us at our China Bear Rescue Centre in October 2000. His cage was a disgrace, with unrelenting bars squashing him flat to the bottom. Called a crush cage, it prevents the bears from moving - immobilising them in order that their bile can be extracted without hurting the farmers. Jasper had spent over fifteen years in this cage.
He was clearly in pain too, with a metal catheter protruding from his abdomen, and a wound that was infected and extremely sore. Bile fluid was pouring from his abdomen, but through his pain and trauma I believe he recognised compassion and good care, and responded eagerly and gently to our offers of food and kindness.
Jasper simply represents the truth of the bear farming industry in all its horrible glory - and he is now in a large bear house and grassy enclosure, and loving his days in the sun.Today, I always say that as much as we rescue the bears, bears like Jasper rescue us. When we have a bad day they are there lifting us, making us laugh with their antics out on the grass. They have the most astonishing capacity to forgive and forget the past - determined to enjoy all the new things they can now experience with being a bear. Jasper welcomes new arrivals with the friendliness of an old patriarch, and still finds time to rough and tumble with the juveniles in what we affectionately term a "bear bundle."
For a bear crushed flat to the bottom of his cage for 15 years, I find his charisma and kindness breathtaking.For all these reasons and a million times more, Jasper was the inspiration for this book. I can anticipate that some readers may be worried that Jasper's story is too sad or gory for young readers but nothing can be farther from the truth.
It is written in a way that sensitively and gently describes the practice of bear farming, the happy recovery of a forgiving bear, and how every single individual has it in them to make a difference in the world.