Let’s End Bear Bile Farming with Jill Robinson from Animals Asia – Ep 4, Season 2

Welcome back to PROTECT. This is episode four, season two and a very heartwarming one for me. Today’s guest is Animals Asia, an organisation that is devoted to ending bear bile farming and improving the welfare of animals across Asia.

I came across them on YouTube when I was doing some research on bears in captivity, and there is a multitude of really informative documentaries and stories online documenting their work. It doesn’t take much to bring me to tears when I see an animal suffering but some of the footage was beautiful of bear saved and playing in the sun but it was also so distressing and heartbreaking to see the conditions that so many of them are still enduring today. And I knew I had to reach out to them, get them on the podcast to tell their story to all of us.

So today I’m very privileged to bring you the founder and CEO of Animals Asia, Jill Robinson, who has been a pioneer of animal welfare in Asia since 1985 and she founded the organisation in 1998. Five years after an encounter with a cage bear on a farm in southern China changed her life forever. And she talks about this today.

The same year she was made an MBE by Queen Elizabeth of England and has received a market of Awards and honours since. With an honorary doctorate in veterinary science. Jill works closely with the vet and bear teams during rescues and health checks and advises closely on construction projects. She visits dog and cat markets and zoos and safari parks throughout China to document the abuse of animals and over the years has made countless visits to hospitals and homes for the elderly with her own and Animals Asia’s animal therapy dogs.

Jill has built the organisation into a respected international NGO with over 300 staff, three core programs in the barbell farming, companion animal welfare, and captive animal welfare. She has rescued 600 bile farm bears, and they hold award winning bear sanctuaries in China and Vietnam.

I hope like I did you feel the warmth and fierce love that Jill and her team have to campaign and protect these animals and bring them back to a life that has been cruelly taken from them. I’m delighted to bring you our conversation today and hope you enjoy the episode.

Angela: Jill, I’m so honoured to have you on protect today. Thank you for joining me.

Jill: Thank you so much Angela, it’s wonderful to be talking with you.

Angela: So, I was talking to you earlier and I did say that I have watched countless documentaries with yourself and your team about bears. So I feel like I know you but there’s always something new to learn. So could you let myself in the listeners know how you found yourself working in bear protection and conservation.

Jill: While it was really a bear that found me working in this field, a very long time ago, in 1993. I was actually working with the International Fund for Animal Welfare after having moved to Hong Kong in 1985. And I was working as a researcher, we’re going to the awful live animal markets of you know, countries in Asia and just about being floored by the visions that I was seeing. But it was as I said, in 1993, I got a call from a friend of mine who’s a journalist and he was just speaking on the phone in absolute shock and saying he’d been to a notorious bear bile farm in China, and he urged me to go.

So I grabbed a couple of friends, we went over the border from Hong Kong. This was at a time when bear bile farms were open to the public and you know, this was something that the government had begun in China in those years as a way of protecting bears in the wild. So instead of having bears killed for their whole gallbladders, they started bear ball farming to keep bears in tiny wire cages so that they could literally be milked of their bile from their gall bladders and kept alive every single day. So they thought that this would be helping to conserve bears in the wild.

But of course, this one intentioned act had the opposite effect and bears were being taken from the wild to supplement the farms. So anyway, I found this bear bile farm and joined a tour group. And, gosh, we were given apples to feed the breeding bears, you know, just to sort of see what they wanted us to see. But because I’d spoken to my journalist friend who just been to this farm, he told me where to go and see the bears that were actually being extracted of their bile. 

So we broke away from the tour group and we found some steps into a basement and we found 32 bears in tiny wire cages just constructed so badly they couldn’t move. They had so many wounds over their bodies. They had metal tubes sticking from their abdomens, where their bile was being extracted. And I was in such shock, I just remembered that I was walking around absolutely speechless. And I suddenly felt something touch my shoulder. And I turned around thinking I was going to be hurt but then seeing a bear with her paw just through the bars of the cage, just reaching out to me, and I did something really stupid and took her paw. And she didn’t hurt me, she just squeezed my fingers and I just knew there and I had the most, I don’t know, resounding effect on me that it’s difficult to explain, but I just knew that I would never see her again. But I knew that that message of her holding my fingers so gently when she had every right to break my arm from my shoulder, was the turning point. And everything in my life would change.

Angela: Wow, how confronting. 

Jill: Yeah, it’s something I’d never forgotten. And I never saw her again, I kind of had a feeling I wouldn’t when I left that farm. And all I could do was just say sorry, to her, for what, as a species we were doing to her. But again, it just strengthened my resolve. From that point on, I would be obviously working in an arena that would be ending this practice once and for all and that’s exactly what happened. I ultimately left – I’d started up my organisation in 1998, with the core remit of ending bear bile farming in Asia. 

Angela: I guess something beautiful came out of that moment. 

Jill: Yeah, I have never forgotten her. I even have a name, I called her Hong and she really started everything. She started the dream of the China bear rescue, she started the beginning of the end of bear farming in Vietnam, where we are today. And I often say to people, I hope she’s dead now, because I can’t imagine that she’s still alive and and still being tortured. But she again began something very, very profound. And over 600 bears have so much to thank her for to this present day. 

Angela: So you’ve saved 600 already? 

Jill: Yeah, exactly. Over 630 bears have been saved now, because of that one bear in China and in Vietnam. And we’ve also agreed with the Vietnam government in a Memorandum of Understanding that together we’ll end bear bile farming in the country then once and for all. And, you know, we expect to see that agreement resolved, beginning from the end of this year, when we can hopefully build another sanctuary and rescue more bears in Vietnam, and literally mop up the industry that has about 400 bears left now. 

Angela: Okay, that I did have that question of any statistics of those currently in captivity, is that just in Vietnam? 

Jill: It is, yeah, there’s just over four, but 430 bears, officially now left on bear farms in Vietnam, with the agreement now, as I say, from the governments that will work together to end the industry once and for all. 

Angela: That’s a wonderful initiative. 2022. It’s been a long road for you, but it’s not far now. 

Jill: Absolutely, we are, we are really in what we call the end game now. And as exciting as that is, you know, it’s still very, very nerve racking as well, because obviously, we need to build another sanctuary. We’re preparing to build one to rescue about 300 bears. There are other NGOs in the country that we think would be able to obviously rescue the surplus of those bears, but we’re taking the lion’s share of that promise with those 300. So it’s a huge and very expensive job ahead that we’ve got. But we’re looking forward to it. Because we do have the collaboration of the government now. We have that where with all if you’d like to end it. So it’s a good place to be. 

Angela: Absolutely. So for those that don’t know, could you explain what bile is, roughly how old the practice is and why it’s in such high demand? 

Jill: Well, bile, you know, is found in all of our gall bladders. So in any mammal, and it’s a substance that – so imagine if you’re going to eat something, you’re going to have a full gallbladder of bile because you’re hungry, so your gallbladder is full. And as you start eating, your gallbladder acts I guess, like a balloon, and it starts to squish out bile that will then break down fat in your food. So it’s produced by the liver, and again stored in the gallbladder. 

Now, with bears, they have a very essential acid called ursodeoxycholic acid, or udca, which has been found over many, many years of research to have advantageous aspects to its use. So how Chinese doctors knew this, you know, 1,000s of years ago, is anybody’s guess. But in the last 70 or 80 years, Western research has found that udca can do things like break down gall stones, cure chronic liver complaints, and has a whole host of usages, but it can also easily be replaced by a synthetic alternative, which has been happening over many, many decades now. So when people are taking something called udca, they’re not taking bear bile, but they’re taking a synthetic and chemically used form of bear bile. And so what we know today is that there’s no need to be taking bears and putting them in cages and extracting them cruely of their bile, because it can so easily be replaced by herbs, by 54 different hubs in China, 32 different hubs in Vietnam, and of course, by the synthetic version two. 

Angela: Right, so there are ample alternatives. 

Jill: Totally, no one’s going to die, as we say, for the lack of bear bile today. 

Angela: Okay, so what is their life like in captivity? You mentioned, they’re quite cramped in these cages. I’ve seen on your documentaries that they are in basement areas, and what problems are you finding with them once they’re rescued? 

Jill: Well, what I can say is that every single bear that we rescue that has suffered by an extraction will ultimately die as a result of their treatment on bear bile farms, it causes such terrible, terrible problems for them, they are literally surgically mutilated, to create a fistula or a hole in their abdomen, in China, so that the bile freely drips out of their abdomens. In Vietnam, the method of bile extraction is quite different but it’s no less problematic for the bears in respect to the fact that they are at least anaesthetised by crude anaesthetics by the illegal drug ketamine and then they have the use of an ultrasound to locate their gallbladder. 

The farmers there, as I say, are using a hospital machine that extensively helps people to actually locate the bear’s gallbladder so that when they think they found the gallbladder, they’ll get a four inch spinal needle, and they’ll insert it through into the organ. And when they’re sure that they’ve reached the gallbladder, they’ll then syphon off about 100 mil of bile. 

Very often the bears are declawed or detoothed to make them less dangerous to milk. The lives in the cages are so chronically stressed, that this obviously leads to things like heart problems, dilated day otters, they’re banging their heads against the bars of the cage, in their, you know, frustration and in their pain. So this is causing very often eye problems where they’re dislocating their lens. Gosh, they just aren’t  – mobility problems from where they’ve been confined in these cages for so many decades of their life. So they have terrible arthritis, they have things like spondylosis of the spine, where the vertebrae have fused together. I mean, it just goes on and on and on.

And, of course, you know, psychologically, as well as physically, they are horribly damaged to – so by the time we get them, we call them our broken bears. And it just takes months and months, if not years for them to really begin to fully recover, both physically again, and psychologically. 

Angela: That is just horrific. It almost brings you to tears. I don’t know how you work with this every day. 

Jill: Well, I know what the team would say in both China and Vietnam. And these teams are headed up by the most amazing people we’ve got Ryan in China, and Heidi in Vietnam, who are our Vet  and Team Directors. And, you know, they would say that the same as I do that just working with these animals, just being able just to have that honour, if you like of rescuing them, and the absolute pride and joy of seeing them being released into enclosures after having their pain taken away, through the surgeries that we’ve had to offer them is just the most incredible feeling. You know, bears are very stoic animals. And they can come through the past practices that have rendered them absolutely helpless on these farms. And they can go on to enjoy happy and very healthy and fulfilled lives as well, even if they’re missing limbs, you know, from being caught illegally in the wild in their cold traps or if they’re missing eyes as a result of having had them removed to take away their pain or having had their teeth removed. They can really show that suffering can be replaced by deep, deep joy and contentment in their enclosures. 

Angela: I love that – an honour. That’s a beautiful way to think about it. So if we can go on a lighter note for just a moment. I know you have a few bears. I read you’ve got moon bears, brown bears and sun bears. But do they have any shared qualities about them? What are they like innately? 

Jill: Oh goodness, they’re very charismatic animals. They’re very super intelligent animals as well. We’ve just in Vietnam, for example, started a new physiotherapy programme for bears that have obviously had severe mobility problems over the years. So these are programs designed to get them to stretch those atrophied limbs and just be able to move muscles that have, you know, been largely broken down and to get bones moving again. And it’s just wonderful to see how they respond to a programme such as physiotherapy, you know, to be encouraged to stretch high to receive tasty nourishing food, for example, or toys that they may not have played with before. And just to see them figuring it out, you know how they can work with our team on this most amazing physiotherapy program. 

But you see them outside and enclosures as well, you know, bears that have been anything up to 30 years in cages, now exploring and foraging as they would in the wild now playing for the first time with friends that they find, you know, that they want to be with sleeping together two, or three and a bit. Just seeing these natural, wonderful personalities come through. And I think one of the most joyous things is as well, is to understand and perhaps not always comprehend how forgiving they can be, to the human species that has caused them so much pain, but to become so trusting to their carers to come up to them, you know, to just be able to put their past anger and their past trauma behind it’s remarkable as they are as a species. 

Angela: They sound brilliant, and what lovely observations. I know that Animals Asia takes a kind approach to, I guess your dealings with the people you work with. So I wanted to know, how do you find these bears to rescue and how do you advocate for their release? 

Jill: Different ways, really. But if I talk in Vietnam, you know, again, because we have the government so completely on side to wanting to end this industry. Now, this is really a case of where there’s space, the bears will come. So you know, the government just will call us literally when bears need to be confiscated from the farms. So bear farming, again, is illegal in Vietnam but the bear farmers have been allowed to sort of keep them as pets if you like. And so the quicker that we can build the new sanctuary, the quicker that we can rescue these bears, and get them into sanctuary for the first time in their lives. 

You know, often when the government finds a bear farm that’s operating illegally, they will close it down. And if we have room, conversely, the bears into our care or into the care of other NGOs in the country. So you know, it’s a very holistic programme. We’re not only the bears are being rescued, but we’re also working with the traditional medicine organisation in the country as well, where we’re doing public education programs, where we’re working with schools to grow the herbal alternatives to bear bile, or just anything that will encourage the local community to join and not want to be going out there and buying bile in the future from these farms. 

Angela: That’s fantastic. So I’m a big advocate for these types of sanctuaries that are all about the animals, no performance requirements, they can just be. So how many sanctuaries do you have? You mentioned, you’re looking to build another by the end of the year? And how many bears do you have on site at the moment? 

Jill: Well, we have two sanctuaries already, one in China, in Chengdu, in Sichuan Province. And we have another one in Vietnam. And as I say, in terms of our national park, in the north of the country, just outside Hanoi. And together, we’ve rescued over 630 bears. So the second sanctuary that we now need to build in Vietnam is a huge challenge, of course, both resource wise and financially as well. And this is a big, big year for us in terms of having to raise the appropriate funding to start breaking ground in hopefully the third quarter of this year. 

Angela: Okay, so where do you obtain funding and how can myself and the listeners help? 

Jill: Well, thank you so much, Angela, this is, you know, funding is really obtained by people listening into this programme. You know, we don’t sort of get government funding at all, the paperwork and help that we get from the government, of course, is second to none. And that helps us to, you know, be able to work with them in closing the farms down, but it certainly doesn’t help in building sanctuaries. And that’s where you guys listening in, are really fundamental to the success of this program and to bear farming in Vietnam. 

So please, please, I hope that you can dig deep, because this is something that we desperately need to get that sanctuary built before the end of the year so that we can really commit to our promise with the Vietnam authorities, and help to rescue the remaining bears on farms, and have this industry finally, finally closed. 

And this in itself, you know, then provides such a good template to other bear farming countries, of course, where we are in China as well. And all the while what I would like to say as well is that the mechanism of Animals Asia has always been to carry out our projects kindly, we have a fantastic campaign called “Kindness in Action”. And this is where I think your listeners might be quite surprised, in that no one loses face. We don’t embarrass anybody. We don’t embarrass – certainly the government’s or indeed, the bear bile farmers themselves. And the program to end bear farming is done in such a way that everybody is heroes. And this obviously, makes collaboration even easier when you know that, you know, the government or the stakeholders of the industry, are not going to be made to feel ashamed by what they do. And I’ve got to be more readily agreeable to giving up their bears, so that it’s not just building a sanctuary, but it’s ensuring that bear bile farming will never happen again, and to make sure that we’re closing up all the loopholes of this industry, once and for all. 

So that’s where your funding goes. Very, very holistically across the board. And I again, I hope that your listeners will indeed dig deep as we need now to finally finally bring this industry to an end.

Angela:  I believe they will. Definitely. And it sounds like a lot of respectful relationships and dialogue going on there. So that’s wonderful. Further to that, is there anything we can do from a consumer point of view? I’m not sure if there are products or ingredients we can avoid to safeguard us from contributing to this at all? 

Jill: That’s a really good question. But bear bile farming is an internal industry. So bears being farmed in China and Vietnam. It’s a domestic industry only. So it would be illegal for this substance to be getting outside of the country. The only thing I would say is that if you do have traditional medicine shops in your areas, and you see that they’re selling bear bile, I would go to the authorities, because that in itself would be completely illegal to do that. 

Angela: Okay, thank you for that advice. You mentioned earlier the Memorandum of Understanding the Vietnam government. Is there any kind of legislation happening in China? Or is that what you’re working on at the moment? 

Jill: I’m afraid in China, bear bile farming is still very much a legal industry. But you know, what we’re doing there is encouraging collaboration with the authorities, with local NGOs and with the community, to encourage people to take the herbal alternatives to bear bile instead. 

We’re also working on programmes to protect bears in the environment. So one of the programmes that we’re very proud of is human bear conflict mitigation, where we are funding now the uniforms and the infrared cameras of local field biologists and government officials in Yunnan province and hopefully soon to be in another project in Sichuan Province as well. Where they can go out into the field, they can understand where the wild bear populations are, how closely they’re encroaching into human habited areas, if there’s danger there, and in turn, how we can mitigate those dangers now, as well. So it’s programmed to help protect not just bears in the local community, but of course, the local community as well. And this in itself, you know, engages trust, if you like, with the local general public, and with the government as well. 

Angela: Alright, thanks for that. So other than your work with the government, do you have any other projects on the horizon for Animals Asia? 

Jill: Well, I think obviously, you know, as I said before, this year with Vietnam and ending bear farming is absolutely huge for us and if we can close that market now close the bear ball farming industry, it’s going to open up I think, a lot of doors in terms of helping other projects that we’re working on in terms of animal welfare in both China and Vietnam. So you know, it’s a big project, but it will have, I think, enormous repercussions in terms of the benefit of animal welfare on the Asian continent. 

Angela: And do you have a memorable save that you could talk about, Jill? 

Jill: There’s so many, and I haven’t even talked about a cat and dog welfare programme, but perhaps we can save that for another time. Because just I will just say quick now –  

Angela: No, definitely mention that because I saw – you you are working on that as well. Is that for food? 

Jill: Yes, well it’s ending the consumption of cats and dogs for food. And I’m sure that some of your listeners may have heard that in May of last year dogs and by default cats were removed from the livestock list of China, which means that the sale of these animals now for consumption in China is illegal. Now, your listeners will obviously see that the industry is still going on because there’s obviously pushback from the trade, and people are circumventing the rules. But the mechanism is there. It is now absolutely 100% illegal to sell dogs and cats for consumption. 

And you know, this has given us an enormous opportunity to continue with our public education programs and working with the government as we have been doing over the last few decades in China. So it’s wonderful news, this is another one of our founding goals that has finally been achieved in China. And it really, really opens up doors now into helping dogs and cats there. And closing that industry once and for all. 

Angela: Fantastic. And can you pick one bear? I know it’s difficult. 

Jill: Maybe I’ll pick Oliver because we even have a day named after him called Oliver’s Day, every year. And we have, you know, people supporting us called Oliver’s army. And you can find that out on the website. But Oliver was one of the bears I was talking about earlier, that had been caged for 30 years of his life. And when we rescued him, he was just so broken that on the road back to the sanctuary, he needed major abdominal surgery. And we were caught in the middle of a seven hour traffic jam. It was just the most awful experience because Oliver was there, dying. We were caught in a traffic jam, and then suddenly out of nowhere, we had police and government officials turning up to the truck in the middle of the traffic jam. And they were so kind they got us out of the traffic jam, they got us to a local hospital, where the local doctors have been alerted by the police along the way as well.

And they came running out with oxygen cylinders and other equipment that our team needed to perform major abdominal surgery on Oliver and our vet team were able to save his life. Once we got him back to the sanctuary and once he recovered, we managed to get him outside into an enclosure where he spent the next four years enjoying everything that a bear should enjoy before he sadly passed away. And it’s just the most wonderful story. 

Everyone that walked onto the roof of Oliver’s enclosure to look down to the enclosure below, burst into tears whenever they saw him because they’d always remembered what they’d been doing for the last 30 years of their life. And, you know, imagining Oliver all he was doing was was just suffocating and dying in a cage. And now to see him outside as he shuffled along, his mobility was quite bad but he was being managed really well with medicines, etc. And his pain was being managed. And he just had the most beautiful springs and summer out there in the enclosure, sleeping in clover, swimming in his pool and just enjoying the nicest, tastiest food he’d ever enjoyed in his life. 

Angela: What a story. 

Jill: Yeah, it’s just, you know, it makes me cry now just thinking of it. Because he was he just represents all of the bears now that we’re fighting to save on bear bile farms, and hoping that one day, they’re all going to be rewarded, you know, with their day in the spring and the sunshine. So again, I just want to thank everybody listening, who might be able to help us because that’s the sort of story that you’re allowing us now to tell. 

Angela: Look, I can’t imagine anybody listening, including myself does not want to support you and help you and your team who was just doing such admirable work. And you know, one thing that you did say to me earlier that has struck me is you’re right, they are so forgiving. They are so trusting after what they’ve been through. And it’s not years, it’s decades, you know that they were in that position. So thank you for what you’re doing. Jill. 

Jill: Thank you very much. It’s just the nicest thing to see them playing with each other turning somersaults just because they can laying out there in what we call bear splats that just splattered into the grass, and just enjoying the sun on their backs so much. And it’s just the most musical program to work on. And I don’t think any of us, you know, ever, ever underestimate the sheer joy of being, as I say, being able to do that for them. 

Angela: Fantastic. And are you hopeful that we are moving in the right direction globally in animal conservation?

Jill:  I think so, you know, I can really only speak for Asia, I suppose firsthand. But we are seeing enormous change now along the Asia continent. And certainly with the explosion of animal welfare groups. When I first began in China, there was one, and now there’s over 250 groups there. So you know, you can see that there’s a huge amount of will and passion to be helping animals. I think that you know, with things like COVID-19 we all have to look deep inside ourselves now. And just ask what we can do differently now, you know, because even programs coming out, supported by the UN are saying that, you know, this earth is not sustainable anymore with the practices that we’re carrying out now. And certainly things like turning more towards a plant based diet is absolutely essential for the survival of humankind. 

So, you know, these are very sobering facts now that are coming out and we should be, as I say, looking and asking ourselves, what can I do to be kind and one of those things is clearly following more of a plant based diet, if not going totally Vegan. 

Angela: Okay, I’ve been vegan for a year now. And it wasn’t as difficult as I thought to be honest.

Jill: Absolutely, I’ve been a vegan for many years. And it’s just incredible to see how, you know, plant based food is maturing, and becoming so tasty, you know, you can understand in the early days, it’s all about the taste. And if companies are not producing something, you know, to convince us to go more into a plant based diet, then people are just not going to do that. But it’s very, very different now. And there’s amazing food and amazing restaurants out there.

It’s just part and parcel of some of the things that we can do, you know, including other things is just don’t go to circus performances with animals. You know, look at what you’re buying in your makeup, go for animal free, animal friendly products. You know, people know, we know by now what we can do. And I think it’s just having that will to do that. And just find compassion deep within our hearts that we know makes a huge, huge difference not just to the animals concerned, but to humanity as a whole. 

Angela: Absolutely, we certainly know better now. And Jill, honestly, such a pleasure to speak to you today and to learn about all your projects and Animals Asia, be introduced to your bears, and your other programs. So again, thank you so much for your tireless work, your team and what you’re doing is just incredible. And I know the listeners and myself are here to support you. 

As Jill mentioned, they are trying to complete the sanctuary the end of this year. So if you are able to donate I will put the links in the show notes for you. And do follow Animals Asia on social media, Instagram has some wonderful pictures and videos of bears playing and some stories of rescues so definitely go there and visit them. 

Jill: Thank you, Angela. so much. Thank you for the opportunity. 

Angela: Anytime and I hope to speak to you again in the near future. Thank you.  

Jill: Bless you. Bye for now.

Angela: Thank you for joining me on today’s episode. I hope you enjoyed my conversation with Jill. And as she mentioned Animals Asia is working hard to build a new sanctuary to rescue and rehabilitate more bears and local wildlife. So if you are able to support them with a donation, please reach out and do so. You can also sponsor a bear, buy bear’s a gift, gift yourself a T-shirt or toy. Please see the show notes for links if you are in a position to support Animals Asia and do give them a follow on social media so you can stay up to date with the news and of course see the bears playing and being their beautiful selves in a safe place. Wishing you all a great week and I’ll speak to you soon. 

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