Aghast at the fate of the Moon Bears in China’s bile farms, an Englishwoman swung into action.
By SHOBA MANO
JILL Robinson was a consultant for the International Fund for Animal Welfare back in 1993 when she visited a bear farm in Guangdong, China.
Wandering away from her group, she entered a basement where she saw rows of cages and heard frantic noises as she approached them.
“I saw caged bears all around me. I realised in shame that they made those noises because the presence of humans meant only pain.
“Suddenly, I felt something touch my shoulder. I turned and came face-to-face with a female bear. She had stretched her paw through the cage bars.
Saved: Jill Robinson, founder of the Animals Asia Foundation, offering a piece of fruit to a rescued Moon Bear in China.
— ANIMALS ASIA FOUNDATION
“In reflex, I took her paw. Rather than pull my arm off its socket, the bear simply squeezed my fingers, and our eyes connected,” said Robinson, who later named the bear, Hong.
That was a life-changing moment for the 49-year-old Englishwoman, and the beginning of her fight to save Moon Bears through Animals Asia Foundation (AAF), which she founded in 1998 in Hong Kong. Robinson has worked in Hong Kong and China since 1985.
A one-hour special, Moon Bears: Journey To Freedom, on Robinson’s work to save the bears, was shown over the Animal Planet Channel in Australia, New Zealand and most of Asia. It is scheduled to be screened in the UK and Europe this June.
The special is as much about Robinson as it is about AAF’s rescue of Moon Bears from some 500 bear farms across China. These Asiatic black bears are known as Moon Bears due to the yellow crescent on their chests.
In farms, Moon Bears are kept inside “crush” cages where metal grilles press their bodies flat onto the bottom bars. Metal catheters are inserted into cuts made in their abdomen to extract their bile.
Bears may spend as many as 20 years immobilised in this manner. And they are purposely starved because a hungry bear produces more bile.
Bear bile extract is used in traditional Chinese remedies for a range of health problems, including fever, liver disease and sore eyes, with the highest demand coming from Japan, South Korea and China. They are also sold in many other parts of the world, including Malaysia and Singapore.
In July 2000, AAF made history when it signed an agreement with the Chinese authorities to rescue 500 bears in Sichuan. It was the first agreement to be signed by China with any animal welfare organisation.
Officially, some 7,000 bears are kept in bear farms throughout China. To-date, AAF has only rescued 218 bears due to a shortage of funds. They need money to re-house the bears in a sanctuary and find the farmers alternative means for income.
Yet Robinson is determined to see every single bear free. Perhaps it’s because she never got to rescue Hong that she said, “No matter what it costs, no matter what it takes, this hateful trade must be stopped.”
AAF’s methods are non-confrontational. It stresses education, and works with scientists to discover and promote herbal and synthetic alternatives to bear bile, and even compensates bear farmers whose farms have been shut down by the Chinese government.
Once a farm is closed, the government hands over its licence to the AAF to ensure the owners can never again return to harvesting bears. The rescued bears are sent to AAF’s Moon Bear Rescue Centre in Chengdu, Sichuan province.
“The bears are in an appalling state when they arrive. Many suffer crippling ailments such as arthritis, peritonitis, weeping ulcers, ingrown claws and broken teeth from years of gnawing on the bars of their cages. Their severe psychological trauma also causes them to gnaw on their limbs,” said Robinson.
Remarkably though, nearly all of these intelligent bears have been rehabilitated and are able to interact with other rescued bears.
Robinson says it costs about US$100,000 (RM340,000) annually to run the Moon Bear Rescue Centre, where its 140 Chinese staff and veterinary team focus on the most important aspect of the sanctuary, the Education Village.
Here, visitors who throng by the thousands each year learn that animals have the right to live free from exploitation and cruelty.
AAF’s success in China is also mirrored in Vietnam. Eight long years of negotiations ended in 2005, when the Vietnamese Government agreed to phase out bear bile farming.
AAF has built a sanctuary in a beautiful valley adjoining the Tam Dao National Park near Hanoi, for rescued bears.
Robinson has given hundreds of presentations throughout the world and has been interviewed on CNN, BBC and many other international programmes and talk shows.
Her awards include being made a Member of the British Empire (MBE) by Britain’s Queen Elizabeth in 1998, and the Readers Digest Hero For Today award in 1995.
In 2002, Robinson received the Genesis Award – the only major media and arts award specific to animal issues. Yet, she says none of these awards can replace the satisfaction of seeing animals living free.
Once someone asked Robinson “if it wouldn’t be more practical and cheaper to euthanise all of the farmed bears”.
In response, Robinson said: “These bears have been through hell and back. The fact that they recover so surprisingly well, have a love for life, and actually forgive the human species for causing them so much suffering, moves all of us deeply. I believe they have earned their day in the sun.”
Robinson will be in Kuala Lumpur on June 9 to launch the Dr Dog programme and open the Furry Friends Farm in Central Park, Bandar Utama, Kuala Lumpur.
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The International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) began in Canada in 1969 but today has branches in 15 countries with headquarters in Yarmouth Port, Cape Cod, US. It works to improve animal welfare, prevent animal cruelty and abuse, protect wildlife and provide animal rescue around the world.