Her name was Hong – at least that was the name I gave to the first bear I ever saw on one of China’s notorious “bile extraction” farms in 1993.
Going undercover and joining a group of Japanese tourists, I broke away from the group and found stairs leading to a basement below the farm. The vision was shocking — held in “crush” cages, were 32 endangered Asiatic Black Bears – called Moon Bears because of the beautiful yellow crescents on their chests. Nervous “popping” vocalizations echoed around the room and when I looked at their damaged bodies I knew why they were afraid. Here were animals which had been deliberately de-clawed and had their canine teeth brutally hacked away by the farmer who had taken away their defenses to make them easier to “milk.”
Wounds three feet along their bodies from where they had grown into the cage bars, and gaping, infected holes from where crude metal catheters protruded, showed how these gentle, intelligent animals had been “milked,” as machines, for their entire lives – for medicine in Chinese pharmacopoeia which can just as easily and cheaply be replaced by herbs.
At one point I felt something touch my shoulder and spun nervously around to see a bear with her arm stretched through the bars of the cage. Naively I took her paw – and, surprisingly she didn’t rip my arm from the socket, but simply squeezed my fingers whilst our eyes connected in a moment which crossed every barrier of species and understanding. Her message was clear, and whilst today my overwhelming sorrow is of a bear we couldn’t save, Hong — whose name means bear – became the ambassador for a dream which began the China Bear Rescue.
An old Confucion saying “A thousand miles starts with one step” sums up the road for our campaign to bring the unconscionable and unnecessary trade of bear farming to an end – and this story simply sets the stage of how, individually, we can start such a journey. That the power is in every single one of us to right the wrongs of this often unconscionably cruel and ignorant species of humankind — and to change the lives and future of beings who previously had no hope. That, through a combination of blind faith, optimistic ignorance, tenacity and sheer bloody mindedness, the destiny of another species can be changed for the better.
There can be no more proud or joyous feeling than to look into an animals’ eyes, knowing that you have made a difference, rather than turning away, ashamed, at each new vision of despair.
Today, our Sanctuary in Sichuan Province, is bursting at the seams with happy, healthy bears who have put their miserable lives on the farms far behind. Following years of work and negotiations with the Government Departments of Beijing and Sichuan, we finally secured an Agreement to rescue 500 bears and work together to end bear farming in China. To date, over 40 bear farms have been closed, securing 205 bears confiscated into our care — and this month sees more.
Our projects on site are providing “win/win” solutions for animals and the local community to enjoy. Once a bear farm closes, the farmer returns the original license to Animals Asia and receives compensation for his bears. No new licenses are issued, and farmers can never again legally enter this trade. Our Sanctuary creates jobs and salaries for people who previously had no work, sees the use of local equipment and materials, and the purchase of local food and produce, for bears and people alike. Following endorsement from Chinese celebrities and extensive and enthusiastic coverage from local Chinese journalists, growing interest in our China Bear Rescue is being seen far and wide in a country which has only just begun to understand the words and connotations of “animal welfare.” Our Traditional Chinese Medicine Education Packs are also seeing mass circulation to thousands of Doctors and students who are now signing on in droves to our escalating campaign — “Rescue Black Bears — Give up Bear Bile Usage!” Central to the rescue is the development of education programmes which provide a unique opportunity for us to spread a message of respect for all animals, whilst advancing the concept of animal welfare and rights in China.
Admittedly, the road to ending bear farming isn’t easy. Today there are over 7,000 bears who are cruelly caged on farms – and still no Central Government policy calling for a final ban. Therefore as the only group rescuing 500 bears and working “from within”, our evidence is crucial in building the case to end a disgraceful and unnecessary industry.
Having received over 200 victims of bile extraction at our Sanctuary since October 2000, our case is solid – and the evidence on our surgery table is leaving no doubt that the new, so-called humane, methods of obtaining the bears’ bile fluid are no better than the old – and that bears are clearly dying in agony and in significant numbers on the farms.
With each new investigation of the bear farms, and with each new pitiful arrival requiring anything up to 7 hours of surgical repair, we are proving how the so-called “good” farms and “humane” methods of bile extraction are anything but.
In May 2004, the Chinese Government invited the team of Animals Asia to accompany them on an investigation of bear farms in China’s southwest Yunnan Province. Despite the best efforts of the farmers to convince us all that their methods of captivity and bile extraction had progressed to a humane and pain-free model of excellence, we saw images which made us sick to our stomachs and reduced us to tears. Bears being exploited and tortured, sick and skeletal animals clearly dying in front of our eyes, abuse, after abuse, after abuse. During the visit I broke down after seeing a shell of an animal which had once been a bear. Almost naked, with sores all over his body, two huge hernias in his abdomen, and a shrunken skeleton of a face – I looked into his eyes and could only say sorry, because there was nothing else I could do or say to help him. This is the image that drives us.
Indeed on that same trip, the farmers had fooled no-one. The Government officials who accompanied us were clearly disturbed and the report we have produced is now circulating across the country – in our ongoing effort to extinguish a practice which should never have begun.
Reports are not enough — dialogue, hard evidence and public presentations must escalate our goal. Recent workshop held in Beijing attended by the Government, by local and international experts – and by bear farmers themselves – saw an aggressive afternoon of presentations and dialogue. The farmers lied and lied again, making bold accusations against Animals Asia’s work and investigations – and were immediately shot down in flames, with their claims in tatters, when we presented hard, compelling and up to the minute evidence of the realities of the trade.
In truth, no-one can tell the bears’ tragic story better than the victims themselves, and the images of free and happy bears tumbling into bamboo forest, and playing with their friends touch the heart and show that our voyage is on course and is the driving force within China for bringing bear farming to an end. Victims who arrived violently aggressive and consumed with pain and fear are, today, showing how stoic and truly forgiving this species can be. Ambassadors like gentle three-legged Andrew, fun loving
Jasper, mischievous Banjo and sweet elderly Franzi are all proof that miracles do happen. As their health has improved, so too has their confidence – and their eyes have gradually taken on the trusting look of animals who have put their years of torture behind and who understand that life is worth living again.
At Animals Asia, our belief is simple. By helping the individual bears, we can work towards our higher goal of helping them all as a species and ending bear farming by the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. One quote from Tolstoy drives me personally on this journey … “Every man and living creature has the sacred right to the gladness of springtime.”
Jill Robinson is founder of Animals Asia, devoted to ending the barbaric practice of bear bile farming and improving the welfare of animals in China and Vietnam. Through her work with the bears, and her many other programs administered through Animals Asia, she is at the forefront of changing the way animals are being perceived and treated on that continent. In 1998 she was awarded an MBE by Queen Elizabeth in recognition of her services to animal welfare in Asia. In 2002, she received the Genesis Award in the United States – the only major media and arts award concerning animal issues.