As a species, our lack of kindness has surely led the human race to where we are today. The majority of pandemics have been caused by our insufferable treatment of animals.
Asiatic black bears are a case in point. The rebel in me wants to criticise the bear farming industry for its horribly cruel practices, but my inner pragmatist has learned that our focus must be working towards dismanting this industry both through practical steps and by kindness.
In the wild, this megafauna animal is a keystone species. Bears till the land, disperse fruit seeds and fertilise the forest. They feed mostly on plants, roaming large territories and scattering undigested seeds all across their range. As an umbrella species, they keep other species healthy and robust in the ecosystem by hunting the weak and sick. As opportunists and scavengers, they keep the forests cleaner and free from contaminants by eating dead animal carcasses and carrion which would otherwise pollute the forest environment and spread disease. A healthy forest contributes to a healthy climate, and bears are certainly a big contributor to the cycle of life in the wild.
Sadly, their lives on bear bile farms are no teddy bears’ picnic and their plight contributes nothing towards a healthy earth. While the bile that is extracted contains ursodeoxycholic acid (UDCA) which has proven medical benefits for humans, the insanitary and cruel way farmed bears are caged and their bile extracted results in a product that is full of contaminants such as pus, faeces, urine, bacteria and cancer cells. All to procure a body fluid that has easily and cheaply been substituted by herbs for millennia, and since the 1950s by synthetics that are sold by the tonne across the world.
The Animals Asia team and I have campaigned against bear farming since the early 1990s and have rescued over 630 bears into our award-winning sanctuaries in China and Vietnam. In Vietnam, excitingly, we appear to be on the home run, after signing a memorandum of understanding with the government to end bear bile farming once and for all by 2022. Our campaign aligns with our “kindness in action” culture: thanks to this, despite public distaste for the industry, bear bile farmers are actually getting some credit for agreeing to renounce bear farming and encouraging others to do the same.
Praising someone for ceasing to commit a crime they have already regularly committed may seem off the wall – but the strategy is winning the war. In China, we have always compensated the bear owners, since bear farming is still legal there and our aim is to avoid anyone being impoverished as a result of our work. In Vietnam, the landscape is different: the practice is illegal, and most of the farmers are well off, profiting from the other businesses they run. The farm owners are generally willing to surrender their ursine “livestock” and our sanctuaries are bursting with happy, healthy bears.
Once confiscated into our care, they never look back. Physically and psychologically damaged, we call them our broken bears, and they all need repair. Some will die from cancers and others will be treated for heart disease, chronic mobility issues, eye pathology, horribly damaged teeth, and a whole raft of problems that originated on the farms and the truly terrible consequences of bile extraction.
But it’s remarkable how well they recover, when cubs and adults alike are gently coaxed out of their trauma and encouraged to be bears. Their enclosures, the size of football pitches, inspire them to be inquisitive, bold and fun-loving. Here they play freely with toys and enrichment devices, and with newly-integrated friends. Our “Little Toy Bear House” has ten of what we call “the munchkins”: short-legged bears whose bellies almost touch the ground. Resembling large black guinea pigs, they are oblivious to the gasps of awe from visitors who, knowing their previous plight, find their hearts simultaneously broken and mended by the sight of them.
Our focus and challenge today is to build another sanctuary to rescue and house as many of the 438 bears still remaining on farms as possible. Once we have the funds to do this we can quickly accelerate our agreement with the authorities so that they, in turn, can keep their promise and advance the closure of the farms.
Our work in China on cat and dog welfare has also achieved results. Decades of sympathetic collaboration with the authorities and NGOs has seen a remarkable shift in attitude towards our best animal friends. Programmes across China see Animals Asia upgrading local rescue shelters, helping animals during disaster situations, or organising and hosting annual conferences where alongside local officials and organisations, we highlight responsible dog ownership and management, and mechanisms for ending rabies in a country with the second highest incidence in the world.
Our enthusiastic canine ambassadors, Dr Dog and Professor Paws, and their loving owners also assist patients in hospitals, or students in schools, where the communities have truly begun to embrace dogs for the friends and helpers they are. Just this May, dogs (and by default cats) were removed from China’s official livestock list, thus making their sale for consumption now illegal country-wide. While enforcement is of course the key and some local authorities will take time to accord to the new regulations, the first step has been taken to bring the brutal and mostly illegal dog and cat industry to an end.
Today we are seeing seismic and unprecedented changes in attitudes and behaviours towards animals in Asia. Which confirms what we already believed: that education is key in showing people that great change can happen, that it’s time to do things differently, and that the only cure – as for so many ills in the world – really is kindness.
Jill Robinson MBE is the Founder and CEO of Animals Asia. Jill has been a pioneer of animal welfare in Asia since 1985, widely recognised as the world’s leading expert on the bear bile industry. UK born, Jill arrived in Hong Kong in 1985 and spent 12 years working for the International Fund for Animal Welfare. In 1993, a visit to a “bear farm” in China defined Jill’s future. Exposing the plight of endangered Asiatic black bears cruelly farmed for bile extraction, Jill embarked on a journey to end the practice. In 1998, she founded Animals Asia, an organisation devoted to ending bear bile farming in China and Vietnam and bring about long-term change for animals by promoting compassion and respect.