Dedicated to saving the continent’s endangered bears from the agony of bile farms, Animals Asia is driven by the passion of founder Jill Robinson, as visits to its two rescue centers attest
By Deirdre Moss
It was feeding time at the Vietnam Bear Rescue Centre in Tam Dao National Park, and its two new residents, Misty and Rain, were cavorting animatedly in an enclosure below me. As I watched the two Asiatic black bear cubs eat and play, I could sense their personalities, not unlike observing the quirks of a newly adopted pet. However, these young animals’ futures were far from those of household darlings. In fact, it was amazing I was watching them at all, as they had only narrowly escaped dark and painful futures as victims of bile farming.
Outside the enclosure, Jill Robinson, a petite British blonde, looked on with the joy of a proud mom. Robinson is the founder and CEO of the Animals Asia Foundation, a nonprofit organization devoted to ending bear-bile farming and improving animal welfare in China and Vietnam. Since she began the organization in 1998, it has rescued more than 400 bears from farms and rehabilitated them at its two sanctuaries in Chengdu, China, and in the mountains of north Vietnam at Tam Dao.
A fundamental ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine, bear bile has a high concentration of ursodeoxycholic acid, which is produced by the liver and stored in the animal’s gallbladder to help break down fat in the diet. Despite the availability of synthetic versions, Asian pharmaceutical companies still use it as a remedy for ailments ranging from hangovers to cancer, and its prized status has led to an industry of bile farmers capturing, caging, and torturing bears—primarily Asiatic black bears, which are commonly known as moon bears for their yellow crescent-shaped chest markings—in order to obtain it. The animals are often kept in captivity for decades with abdominal wounds kept permanently open for easiest access to the bile, which is extracted in a process known as “milking.” A kilogram can sell for up to US$24,000.
The acid is so potent that only a fraction of what’s farmed is used medicinally, and the surplus is cast into commodities such as tooth- paste and eye drops. Nevertheless, Animals Asia estimates that more than 10,000 bears are kept on bile farms in China and an additional 2,400 in Vietnam. But while numerous activist groups have targeted the conservation of other endangered animals such as rhinos, tigers, and elephants, bear-bile farming long lacked adequate attention, an oft-overlooked niche in the vast landscape of animal welfare.
A profound encounter initially turned Robinson to the issue in 1993. Then working for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, she went on an undercover visit to a moon bear farm in southern China. Posing as a tourist, Robinson saw bears with gaping wounds cramped into rusty cages. As she was walking through the dungeon-like setting, one of the animals extended a paw through its bars as if begging for help, completely devoid of any beastly intentions. Robinson reciprocated by squeezing the paw gently, moved by the sadness in the bear’s eyes. The encounter changed Robinson’s life and, as a result, the lives of hundreds of moon bears.
I first met Robinson in 2001 at the inaugural Asia for Animals Conference in Manila, as I was then executive director of the SPCA in Singapore. Immediately drawn to one another by our shared calling to protect animals, we swapped T-shirts from our organizations and afterward kept in touch.
Fast forward a decade, and I finally found myself at her center in Chengdu. Nothing could have prepared me for my visit. I watched the rescued bears frolic in the dens and sun-drenched enclosures, many designed to mimic their natural habitats, and I felt like it was a dream. Bear toys, such as hammocks and riffs on jungle gyms, scattered the property to help residents rehabilitate their paws and limbs, often damaged from years spent clawing at metal bars. Formerly starving and dehydrated in cages too small for them to stand, now monitored and cared for by trained staffs of local citizens, these bears were finally enjoying the freedom, health, and safety they deserved.