~ Jill, our members will be delighted that you have agreed to answer some questions from Quaker Concern for Animals. Animals Asia is an organisation of which we think very highly.
We know that Animals Asia was 15 years old in 2013, but that you personally had already been rescuing bears for 5 years prior to that. Can you think back to the beginning and remember what were your first steps?
Actually the beginning started in 1986 when I began working for the International Fund for Animal Welfare as their Asia Representative. My role then was to investigate the live animal markets of China, South Korea and the Philippines – and my learning curve exploded into vertical, with visions I’d never seen or experienced before. It was a helpful, yet horrible, introduction to the plight of animals in Asia and I learned a lot. Wild, domesticated and endangered species treated in the most egregious fashion – whether for food, fur, medicine or tonics, confined in close proximity of each other, and being slaughtered on the spot. Actually, with so may exposes of the intensive farming industry in the West, I have come to believe that so-called developed countries have a lot to answer for too in their treatment of animals, and often animal welfare regulations aren’t worth the paper they’re written on.
In 1993 I entered a bear farm in southern China – and there was no going back from there when I saw the truly gut wrenching vision of bears caged, exploited and milked like machines for their bile. One bear (I later named Hong – Cantonese for “Bear”) stretched out her paw and inspired a campaign and a new foundation in Animals Asia, dedicated to helping her species. I rather stupidly took her paw in my hand but, instead of hurting me in the midst of her terror and pain, she gently squeezed my fingers and I left her and the farm knowing that the whole course of my life would change.
Today, we have rescued over 400 moon, brown and sun bears in sanctuaries in China and Vietnam – and have seen things that people should never, ever see in a lifetime. Hideous tumours that weigh 10% of the bears body mass, teeth that have been hacked back to gum level and paw tips chopped off – to prevent the bears trying to fight against the daily bile extraction using their strong teeth and claws. Eyes that are blind owing to the poor nutrition on the farms, or as a result of trauma and perpetually banging their heads against the cages in abject misery and frustration. Missing limbs as a result of being illegally caught in the wild in leg-hold traps and snares. Psychotic and pain-racked creatures on arrival to our sanctuaries – but the most forgiving species who, if they survive, go on to enjoy lives of health and happiness in tranquil grassy enclosures under the sun. Currently over 10,000 bears in China and another 2,400 bears in Vietnam continue to suffer this fate. However, our work over two decades is seeing progress in both countries – and particularly now in China where the media refer to it as a “stain” on the country,
Bluebelle bear, rescued after 15 years in this cage, is now living out her days in the peace and tranquillity of Animals Asia’s Chengdu sanctuary.
~ Since bear bile is a complex issue, enjoying a privileged position as a Traditional Chinese Medicine and as such very well entrenched in the far east, which people or groups did you think might help you to take it on as a campaign?
The first thing I did after leaving the farm was to contact traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) doctors. I was quite prepared to write bear bile off as a form of “quack” medication, but wanted to be sure, and was actually ill-prepared for the research confirming that bear bile had been used for thousands of years, to good effect. I explored further with Western researchers too and again the story was the same – with the Minnesota University advising that bear bile contained a specific bile acid called UDCA (urso deoxycholic acid) which was already synthesised in a chemical form (not from bears) and marketed all over the world for a variety of ailments.
This information, together with the advice from eminent Chinese doctors who hated the practice of bear bile farming because it was so clearly against their culture of healing without harm, saw a campaign that worked “with” the TCM community, rather than criticising their discipline, from then on.
The same applies for Vietnam where we work constructively with the Vietnam Association for Traditional Medicine and their members, who also advocate the replacement of bile with herbs.
~ I read in your very informative briefing From Farm to Freedom: Nanning sanctuary project Q&A of February 2014 that the farmer Mr Yan told you ‘ that bear bile farming had become a sensitive issue in China, and that some local members of the National People’s Congress had raised the issue, so he had felt some pressure.’
To what especially do you attribute this positive change of perspective in the political sphere in China?
Our campaign has now run for over 20 years – and I must say that it’s satisfying to see such an explosion of support in China at long, long last. From the outset, this campaign has seen a multi-pronged strategy aimed at collaboration with the government, the TCM community (doctors, pharmacists etc), the media, celebrities, academics, universities, schools and of course the general public at large. Now bear bile farming is an “issue” and we know too from surveys that 87% of Chinese people are against bear bile farming and are willing to play their part in ending it.
Interestingly, in 2012, bear bile farming was among the top 10 most discussed issues of the year – ironically prompted in part by bear farm Guizhentang’s intention to join the stock exchange. In 2013, as our collective voice and power grew, Guizhentang finally abandoned its application.
~ You also say that you ‘think future government decision-making will be easier’. How have you managed to make such a positive impact among government officials? Did you identify local or national politicians, or both?
From the start we recognised that collaborating with both national and local government departments was fundamentally important to our aims. In fact, we are in partnership with two government departments, Sichuan Forestry and the China Wildlife Conservation Association in Beijing, in terms of ending bear farming country wide, as well as working closely with a great many government departments across the country in relation to our dog management programmes and our overall campaign to end the consumption of dog and cats. The same applies with our work to improve the lives of captive animals in zoos across China – as we actively work with them and with the authorities that oversee them in the goal of ending cruel practices such as wild animal performances, live animal feeding, and advancing the five freedoms of animal welfare.
~ Is there a network of well disposed people and bodies in China who have supported Animals Asia?
Yes, there are many such networks that we are proud to work with and support. For example, our online campaign in China to recruit a “Bear Rescue Corps” to assist Animals Asia in ending bear bile farming has already recruited over 2,400 activists keen to play their part. Every day the Bear Rescue Corps is coming up with new ways to help – from lawyers looking at the legality of bile farms, to drug industry workers keen to promote ‘healing without harm’ among colleagues and pharmacies.
In 2013 our Love Moon Bear activities alone reached 30,000 people, with schools and the Education Authorities welcoming us in to talk to their students. By assisting them to develop their own public education campaigns we’re reaching thousands more.
In 2013 the organisers of the APEC Women Leadership Forum invited me to present our work against bear bile farming to an audience of Chinese and world political and business leaders in Beijing – with an invitation to speak again this coming August.
In addition, we help and fund over 144 companion animals groups in 59 cities across China – assisting in over 200 activities spreading the message of caring for cats and dogs – and reaching over 1,300,000 people.
Over 10 million people saw our ads opposing cat and dog meat consumption that were placed in train and bus stations in 15 cities, as well as newspapers and websites. The campaign also received 20,000 reposts on Weibo ,China’s version of Twitter.
Celebrity support is hugely important too – and, as part of Hong Kong-based superstar Karen Mok’s 20th anniversary event she chose Animals Asia as her featured charity. Karen has appeared in over 40 films and has released 15 albums to date. In 2008 she was a torch-bearer and performer at the Beijing Olympics. Karen is the number one female singer on Weibo with over 36 million followers.
We shouldn’t forget the Chinese outside of China too. Last year, thousands of high-flying students represented by 100 Chinese Students and Scholars Associations (CSSAs) around the world threw their weight behind our campaign to end bear bile farming in China by signing an Animals Asia pledge.
This young, Chinese elite from some of the world’s highest profile universities, including Princeton, Stanford, Oxford and Cambridge pledged to “support the campaign and urge our country to end the cruel and unnecessary practise of bear bile farming”. The pledge decried the practice of bear bile farming on the grounds of animal welfare which, it states, has no part in a “civilised Chinese society”.
~ We reported on our web site in October 2013 that over 200 drug stores of 11 chains in China have discontinued selling bear bile. Can you update us on how this campaign is progressing?
Yes indeed, very pleased to report that our Healing without Harm programme is going from strength to strength and the number of doctors and pharmacists supporting us and refusing to sell bear bile in their shops in China is now over 1000.
~ Are you hopeful that doctors are also abandoning the use of bear bile and how are you working to persuade them to do so?
Yes, there is increasing support of our work within the traditional medicine (TM) community of both China and Vietnam. China is covered above but, for the last four years Animals Asia has also been collaborating with the Vietnam TM Association with the aim of reducing bear bile demand in the local community there. Although for years bear bile has been linked to TM, a survey in 2010 of 152 TM doctors in Hanoi showed that only 24% of surveyed doctors actually used this substance.
That survey was later followed with a more comprehensive survey covering nine provinces and over 1,200 TM doctors. The result confirmed that the majority of TM doctors no longer use bear bile, and only 17% of doctors still use bear bile in their practice.
Animals Asia believes that it is the bear bile industry itself that is driving the demand for bear bile and creating the myth that it is literally a cure all. This is why our public education work is so important – particularly handing out thousands of anti-bear farm and bear bile leaflets at tourist hotspots where previously bus loads of people were encouraged to visit farms and buy bile products.
~ Please let us know of any other positive aspects of your campaigning.
Yes please, if you could mention our most ambitious campaign to date and ask supporters to please support our Peace by Piece initiative that is now converting a bear farm into a sanctuary.
This is our message to the government and people of China, and the world at large that, together, we can collaborate on a win win solution that benefits the bears, the farmers and the reputation of the country – and relegate this medieval practice to the history books of shame.
Visit Animals Asia at: www.animalsasia.org
~ Marian Hussenbux for QCA. May 20 2014