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Finding Freedom for Moon Bears

June, 2006
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They are the most coveted bears for Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). But with a profitable trade of using bear parts and bile juice for TCM, J3 the Asiatic Black Bears – affectionately called Moon Bears because of the yellow crescent moon on their chests – have become one of the most endangered species in the world. The population of the bears has been estimated to be as low as 16,000 in China and 25,000 in the whole of Asia. In a Q&A with LittleStar, Jill Robinson, the founder of Hong Kong-based Animals Asia Foundation (AAF), describes her mission to rescue the Moon Bears.

  LittleStar: What is the situation like on bear farming and the plight of Moon Bears in China?

  Jill Robinson: Animals Asia has rescued 198 bears since October 2000 and we have 162 alive today. Any time now we are hoping to receive more caged bears, but there are still more than 7,000 cruelly imprisoned on the farm. Obviously we still have a long, long way to go before our goal of ending this despicable industry is achieved.

  LittleStar: What inspired you to set up AAF as a group for rescuing bears?

  Jill Robinson: I have loved bears ever since I was a child. And the second I walked into a bear farm in 1993, I knew that things would change forever. When I established Animals Asia, it was with the bears in mind – working in a local capacity with local people who felt just as strongly that this trade in the bears’ bile fluid was wrong and obscene. I love dogs and cats, too. It seemed only natural to concentrate our work and efforts on projects that would help all three species. So, in addition to our “China Bear Rescue,” we also have a wonderful campaign called "Friends… or Food", which is restoring respect to companion animals and motivating people to recognize them as valuable members of our society.

  LittleStar: What impact did your first visit to a bear farm 13 years ago have on you?

J8   Jill Robinson: I joined a tour group of Taiwan and Japanese tourists on a bear farm in Zhuhai in southern China in 1993. Breaking away from the group, I found some stairs leading to a basement below and came across 32 pitifully caged Moon Bears. Backing into one of the cages, I felt something touch my shoulder and spun around to see a female bear with her paw reaching out to me through the bars. Although I know it was stupid today, something made me take her paw and our eyes connected while she gently squeezed my fingers. I knew then that a message had passed between us and that a new journey had begun from that second. I never saw her again but have never forgotten her. She has become a symbol for all the bears rescued and all those still suffering and waiting on the farms for freedom.

  LittleStar: Did every Moon Bear get a name after it was saved?

  Jill Robinson: Every Moon Bear is sponsored by individuals or groups across the world who have been touched by their plight and suffering. They all have a fantastic variety of names which show just how much they are loved by their new “family.”

  Andrew was the first bear to arrive with us on October 16, 2000. He was named after the grandson of a wonderful businessman in Hong Kong who gave us the funding and the confidence for the rescue to begin. Our lovely Chinese bear team couldn’t pronounce the name "Andrew" and so called him “Anderloo” and everyone then began calling him that, too. Tragically, Andrew died in February this year - a victim of liver cancer which so often kills the bears in the end. J5

  We have a gorgeous bear with two names. Her first name was Lemon Drop, which was given by our nurses, because she not only has a huge  lemony crescent on her chest but also a lovely orb of yellow on her abdomen – just like the sun. She has a lovely sponsor in Beijing who has called her Amber – an equally beautiful name for a beautiful bear.

  We also have a boy with a girl’s name of Emma and a girl with a boy’s name of Caesar. This was because when I was visiting their farm in Tianjin, the owner said he had one boy and one girl but didn’t know which was which. I saw this huge and magnificent Brown Bear and decided he must be a boy. Of course I was 100 per cent wrong. But the team all thought it was so funny and we decided to keep Emma for the boy and Caesar for the girl!

  LittleStar: What is the progress on building the permanent sanctuary and its accompanying Education Village?

  Jill Robinson: It’s wonderful. We have 9 enclosures finished and the sanctuary has never looked more beautiful. Rehab areas and enclosures in the bamboo forest allow us to select the right environment for bears of all shapes, sizes and personalities and with varying degrees of disabilities such as missing legs, eyes or teeth, etc. We have a gorgeous enclosure for our disabled bears that were caught by the farmers in leg-hold traps or snares. The enclosure allows us to easily watch over and manage them and the healthy bears have a lush bamboo forest where they can disappear from view if they like. Our Education Village is just being designed and showcased as a centre of excellence in a simple but natural way, where bears can be loved and respected for their own sakes rather than how they benefit humankind.

  LittleStar: What is your life like as an advocate for these bears?

  Jill Robinson: I live an exhausting but immensely satisfying life. The bears touch everyone’s hearts and for that reason, we see more and more people dedicated to helping them. With that dedication and passion, we become ever closer to ending a horrific industry that should never have begun.

  LittleStar: What do you find fulfilling about your life and work?

  Jill Robinson: I have just taken a group of students around the sanctuary this morning. It was the most joyous thing to see the bears through their eyes. We had fun watching the bears swimming in the pool, seeing them romp around the enclosures like naughty children and shed some tears at the graveyard in memory of all the bears we have loved and lost over the years. After they left, I sat back down to answer some e-mails and heard the loudest splashing sounds coming from the enclosure opposite my room. There was Lemon Drop bouncing ecstatically in the pool – and I realized that this was the first time she had ever been in water. I nearly cried with joy at her sheer love of life at that moment. So many stories like this happen each and every day at the sanctuary. Just yesterday our old lady Franzi (who is 28 - around 90 years in human terms) was skipping around the “Secret Garden” she shares with brain-damaged Rupert like a spring lamb. I have never seen her so alive or flirty with him and again thanked the heavens that she had some time to enjoy her life as a bear after 25 years of being caged on a farm. This is why we all know that what we are doing is so right – surely every wild animal has the right to live where they belong: in the wild.

  LittleStar: What is the story behind that bear tattoo on your shoulder?

J2  Jill Robinson: I had the tattoo engraved on my shoulder when I was 45. I had always loved the calligraphy of the words Moon Bear and it seemed right to have a symbol of something I love as a permanent reminder of what we are doing.

  Like so many species, Moon Bears have a passion for life and an unrelenting drive to overcome pain and suffering and put their past agony behind. It is difficult for me to comprehend the torture they endure – both physically and mentally – on the farms, spending their entire lives in a tiny wire cage with nothing to stimulate their intelligent and active minds. That they can forgive us, as a species, for incarcerating and torturing them for so many years is almost incomprehensible. Would we be so forgiving?

  To see these animals today, wrestling and playing, swimming in their pools, climbing high trees, exploring the bamboo forest or just lazing in the sun is enormously satisfying and inspiring to all of us in the Animals Asia team and motivates us all to keep going. Bears are just like 10-year-old children – they are inquisitive, mischievous and simply love having fun.

  LittleStar: During the 13 years since you began your mission to rescue the abused bears, did you feel any moments of despair?

  Jill Robinson: Yes, of course I despair – doesn’t everyone? There are black moments when I think that this horrible industry will never end. But then I see how the bears touch everyone’s hearts who visits this magical sanctuary and I know without a shadow of a doubt that we will reach our goal and that bear farming will end.

  LittleStar: What was the biggest difficulty you have ever encountered?

  Jill Robinson: Our greatest difficulty from the start has always been the deceit in the industry. In China, we are very proud to be working with our government partners – the CWCA in Beijing and the Sichuan Forestry Department – and could not continue this rescue without them. However, we are desperately frustrated, too. We hear farmers saying that their farms are operating under high standards and humane practices and we have never ever seen a farm or surgical procedure where this could be true. We implore the Chinese Government to recognize the truth behind the industry or at least give us the chance to prove the truth at a high level.

  LittleStar: Two expatriate families in Beijing were privileged to visit the bear rescue centre in Chengdu. Are there more opportunities for other children and families to see the centre?

  Jill Robinson: Please just visit our website: www.animalsasia.org and find out how to join our “Open Days” which now occur at least twice a month. It is an educational extravaganza, cheap and easy to join us for a few hours, fun for the whole family and totally inspirational.

  LittleStar: What do you think about the efforts made by the students in Beijing in getting involved in school programs to learn about the plight of the bears and offer ways in which others can help these abused animals?

  Jill Robinson: I especially love the school and university presentations. The students are so imaginative in their questions and in their fundraising ideas. We adults can learn a lot from them. The students at the International School of Beijing, Western Academy of Beijing and Daystar Academy, for example, were just so creative in their ideas for helping to break open cage bars and we can all learn a lot from their inspiration. They prove the point that together we can all make a profound difference in making this world a happier place to share with the animals.

  LittleStar: What is your advice in what youth can do to help stop or prevent cruelty towards animals and other treaJ7sures of the Earth?

  Jill Robinson: We have so much reason for hope because, when we really think about it hard, we can do so much in our individual lives to relieve suffering. By not wearing fur we are saving literally millions of animals’ lives from around the world, ending a barbaric and unnecessary industry… No Arctic explorer has worn fur in decades, synthetics are much warmer and dryer than fur and cheaper, too. Also, many people may not realize that the fur may also be from cats and dogs. I have visited fur markets in China where the fur was from our best friends, but no one would ever know.

  Please don’t visit circuses with wild animals. What do we learn from seeing a tiger, a bear or an elephant in the performance ring? Simply their size, shape and colour. Nothing about their habitat, their family interactions and the way they really live their lives in the wild. Tigers and bears are also routinely declawed and have all four canine teeth cut away to make them less dangerous. And all of the animals are trained by cruelty, jabbing them with pointed sticks and whipping them into submission, forcing them to perform degrading tricks for our entertainment. I saw some 4-month-old bears wearing skirts and performing “dance” routines in a circus last week and cried in shame that our species can reduce majestic wild animals to such an utterly pathetic state.

  Please look at the cosmetics you buy and look for the words that they are not tested on animals. Again, we can save millions of animals across the world from painful and repetitive testing by being more conscious of the products we buy. Laboratories do not share the results of their testing so these cruel experiments are being duplicated and duplicated on literally millions of mice, rabbits, monkeys and dogs.

  Lastly, it makes great sense to go vegetarian, at least for one or two days a week. At our sanctuary, many of our staff are doing this and it’s great to hear them say how fit and healthy they’re feeling as a result. Many people believe that meat is essential for our diets, but in fact the amount of meat that people eat today is causing great harm in the potential risk of heart attacks, cancer and obesity. Eating more vegetables also helps to protect our environment as so much valuable pasture is given up to feedlots for grazing animals that are then turned into burgers. The pollution from these places is horrendous and of course the treatment of animals from such intensive farming practices is cruel beyond belief.

  Be “sustainable” in our everyday lives. Turn off the tap when brushing our teeth, share lifts to work or school or better take buses and trains and recycle our rubbish. Give this suffocating Earth of ours a chance to breathe and heal.

By Xing Yangjian

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