A Journey Of Many Thousand Moons – In Conversation With Dr. Jill Robinson
On the sidelines of the Minding Animals conference (www.mindinganimals.com) in New Delhi, Asym Bal speaks with Dr. Jill Robinson, founder-CEO of the Animals Asia Foundation and internationally renowned champion of Asiatic black bears, also known as moon bears.
Photo Courtesy: Animals Asia Foundation.
Your association with moon bears begins 22 years ago in the Guangdong province of China, with a bear literally reaching out and touching you. Tell us how the incident changed the course of your life.
I was living in Hong Kong at the time; I had gone there with my then-husband in 1985 and soon began working with the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW). In 1993, I got a call from a journalist friend who had visited a bear bile farm in southern China. Very little was known about the bear farming industry back then and he had seen just the most egregious cruelty.
Of course, my interest was very much piqued. I joined a group of Japanese and Taiwanese tourists, but because my friend had told me where to find the bile extraction bears, I was able to sneak away from the tour group – who were only encouraged to go into the shop where bear bile was being sold, or to see the healthier breeding bears.
I knew that there was something much more hideous to be seen. I stepped into this basement and reached what I can only describe as a living hell: all these terribly mutilated bears incarcerated in tiny cages. And they were so frantic because of my presence, because I was the same species as the bear farmer who came to milk them of their bile.
I was in shock. At one point I backed up too close to a cage and felt something touch me, and as I spun around I saw this female moon bear that had stuck her paw out through the bars. And I did something so completely stupid – in hindsight, because having worked with bears all these years I would never do now what I did then – but it just seemed very natural to take the paw that she had outstretched.
She didn’t hurt me. She should have. But she just kind of squeezed my fingers. We looked into each other’s eyes. She was calm and reflective and she must have been hurting so much, because when I saw her abdomen there was a six-inch metal catheter sticking out of her; she had scars running the length of her body; she had just been used and exploited and drained of her bile for so many years. And yet she looked into my eyes and squeezed my fingers. Literally everything about my life changed from that second.
Your work is centred in Vietnam and China, and in the latter case you’re dealing with a regime notoriously intractable when it comes to animal rights issues – and you’re a Westerner, an outsider. Yet you’ve managed to bring them around; your work in the Sichuan province led to the first agreement on animal welfare that a non-governmental organisation has signed with the Chinese government. What’s your secret?
Just living in the country helps first of all, having lots of Chinese friends. Some people are just so bombastic; they go in all guns blazing and think they can point this bourgeois finger at people: “You shouldn’t be eating dogs”, or “you shouldn’t be treating bears this way”.
And I know that even for myself I don’t like being told what to do. I quite like, however, to reason things out with intelligent people. I wanted to understand the dynamics of the bear farming industry. I wanted to understand why bear bile was being used in traditional medicine. And I very quickly, and shamefacedly, learnt that bear bile works...
Photo Courtesy: Animals Asia Foundation.
So it isn’t the sort of quackery associated with most traditional medicines derived from wildlife?
No. Bear bile contains ursodeoxycholic acid (UDCA) which has been subjected to rigorous research. It can break down gallstones, it helps with diabetes, it has healing potential across many levels. But what’s important is that it can be replicated through a chemical synthesis that does the job just as well.
Once we learned that, we could truthfully tell the public that if they took one of the 50-plus herbal alternatives or synthetics instead, they would be healthier than if they took bile from animals that were dying of disease because of the surgical mutilation of their bodies. I also talked to traditional medicine practitioners, who said that bear farming was absolutely not part of their discipline, their philosophy of ‘healing without harm’. They knew that the degradation of these magnificent animals could not be in harmony with nature, which is what Chinese medicine dictates.
So this approach was fundamental to the way we’ve moved forward with Animals Asia – going about our business diplomatically, with intelligence and understanding.
What is the current status of bear farming in Asia? How many bears do you estimate are still in farms?
China is the only country in which bear farming is legal and accepted. It’s illegal in Vietnam, and in Korea too, though the government and farmers there are still arguing about compensation. There are still 1,100 bears caged and confined in Korea, even if the extraction of their bile is not allowed. And farmers in Korea are allowed to slaughter their bears and sell the gall bladders to the industry after 10 years. Bear farming is also found in relatively small numbers in Lao PDR and Myanmar.
But as I always say, at least we’re seeing progress. When we began in Vietnam there were 4,000 bears in farms, now there are about 2,000. And although the practice is still legal in China, we see that a mass of the country is now against it – including celebrities, media, government officials. So the movement is growing.
The moon bear is often maligned as an unduly aggressive species, believed to attack humans without ‘sufficient provocation’. You’ve variously described these bears as “forgiving” and “stoic”. What have your many years interacting with and caring for these bears taught you about their behaviour, their intelligence?
We have – myself and all the staff who care for them – learned so much about this amazing species. And it does distress me that they are described as being ‘aggressive’; like most other mammals, they are aggressive when cornered, when they’re compromised, or when you get between mothers and their young.
But we see these animals at the absolute depths of despair and pain when they come in from these farms. They’ve been mutilated and tortured. They’ve had their paw tips cut back to remove their claws. They’ve had their teeth deliberately cut back, or have shattered them by perpetually biting on the bars of their cages. They’ve got eye problems and sometimes we have to remove their eyes, along with a whole host of surgical interventions.
So why wouldn’t they be aggressive when they come in to our sanctuaries, when they see us as just other human beings, who they’ve been hurt and exploited by for decades!
What we find though is that within weeks certainly, and sometimes within days, once they’ve chowed down on nutritious food, they’re suddenly coming forward to us curiously and proactively, no longer fearing the same species that has caused them so much pain. And that, for me, says everything about their intelligence, their capacity for forgiveness, and about what a remarkable species they truly are.
Visit www.animalsasia.org for more information about Jill Robinson and her work with moon bears. Also watch Cages of Shame, an award-winning documentary on bear bile farming, available for download at www.guinnessentertainment.com/watch-the-films.php.
Read More: An Encounter With A Sloth Bear.
First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXV No. 1, February 2015.