In 1993 a slender, soft-spoken Englishwoman named Jill Robinson visited a bear farm in China for the first time. Visiting as a tourist, she was 'undercover', and she broke away from her tour group and headed down a set of stairs into an unlit basement. What she discovered down there in the dark forced the plight of the moon bears fully into the light and eventually led to the foundation of Animals Asia.
Bear bile has amazing healing qualities, yet the methods used to obtain it are so barbaric they defy belief. The beautiful Asiatic bears, who resemble American Black Bears in size and appearance and are so named for the distinctive golden ruff around their necks, are captured in snares and traps in the wild, thrust into tiny cages that can barely contain them, and have metal catheters thrust into their gall bladders - without surgery. Then these bears live out their lives in pain and fear, crippled, trapped, starved. All for the sake of 'medicine' for humans.
If reading this is news to you and brings a lump to your throat, then this statistic will shock even further. Today there are still 7,000 of these animals on bear farms throughout Asia. The sad fact is that the healing qualities of bear bile can now be recreated cheaply and synthetically in laboratories. There is no reason for these animals to suffer at all.
But there is good news. Due to the efforts of Jill Robinson and her team working in Cheng Du in China, 219 moon bears have been rescued to date, and they have just opened up a new site outside Hanoi. There is a lot of information on Jill and her team on the internet, however the wonderful experience I want to talk about now is meeting this amazing woman and her team at a talk they did on the Gold Coast last week (28 Feb 08). As a supporter of Animals Asia I was thrilled to hear that Jill would be visiting Australia. The event was held in a chinese restaurant on the Gold Coast. I got to meet Jill, who being the kind-hearted lady she is expressed concern about my bandaged hand! During her talk, which was accompanied by slides many of which were incredibly upsetting, there wasn't a dry eye in the house. It was made all the more moving to witness Jill's compassion for the bears - her voice almost breaking as she discussed some of the more distressing photos, obviously reliving some of the sadder issues that she covered. Issues like the illnesses that these bears suffer even after being rescued - peronitis, liver disease, tumours... most of them have a least one limb missing from being caught in cruel traps. Some of them don't survive the initial surgeries required after they have been rescued. These surgeries take up to 9 hours as the Cheng Du vet team repair all the internal damage caused by the insertion of the catheters, repair broken limbs, and give the bears extensive dental surgery.
Jill and her team are also working to eradicate the eating of cats and dogs in Asia. The Friends or Food program goes undercover into some of the most notorious animal markets in Asia, exposing the barbaric practices used into turning millions of cats and dogs into food. These animals are packed into tiny crates, starved and dehydrated, and then bludgeoned to death. Equally distressing, recently in China there were two rabies outbreaks. Just two. Local authorities took action by forming teams who prowled the streets and bludgeoned dogs to death - some 50,000 animals. And not just strays - Jill showed photos of a poor woman whose pet dog was literally ripped out her arms and killed in front of her. Having two dogs myself who are the lights of my life, these slides left tears running down my cheeks. Even typing this now and recalling those images I have a lump in my throat.
I could go on about the injustices these beautiful animals have suffered - and are still suffering. But what I want to highlight is the real miracle - that Animals Asia is working closely with the Chinese government and public and changing the mentality of a nation that has existed this way for thousands of years. By using programs like Professor Paws and Doctor Dog they are taking rescued dogs into old age homes, schools and hospitals as a form of therapy, spreading the word that these creatures are our friends, that they feel and suffer the same way that we do, and that to cause them inhumane suffering, an indignant death and then serve them up on plates is just plain cruelty. Animals Asia is also working closely with the Chinese government to get an end date for bear bile farming. After 15 long years and remarkable work by the Animals Asia team, they are close to pinning down the Chinese government into an actual end date. That means that thousands of moon bears will be released from their cages and will be able to walk in the sunlight, have their injuries healed, play, live their final years in freedom, and finally receive respect and love from a species that up until now has only caused them distress and pain. It was wonderful and heartwarming to see the pictures of rescued moon bears playing in their new enclosures, and hear the affection in Jill's voice as she discussed their personal stories.
So... you've read to this paragraph and you want to know more, maybe some of you want to help. Well you can help, even by spreading the word - educate others because not many people even know about moon bears and their plight. Go onto the Animals Asia website, and yes there are some sad photos on there but there are also some beautiful picture of the rescued bears playing at Cheng Du. There are e-cards to send, you can sponsor and adopt a bear - an alternative birthday present for a niece or nephew! You can buy t-shirts, caps, sweatshirts, and if you have the opportunity to go to one of Jill's talks buy a ticket as it's a wonderful experience and your money goes to such a worthwhile cause. More than that it's a chance to be part of something, in amongst all the terror stories of how the world is rushing towards environmental disaster this is a chance to be part of something positive, and to give something back. If you want to be even more pro-active contact your local Animals Asia office who can give you information about how to help with local fund-raising. The message that Jill and her team send are that the world can be changed for the better, and with support, dedication and hard work thousands of animals can be saved and personally I find it to be a privilege to be even a small part of that. Click here to visit the Animals Asia website.
To paths less trodden...
As I embark on my journey I'd like to thank everyone for their continued support, your excitement for me as I start a new era in my life, and the gift of your friendship. I'm as excited as a kid at Xmas who has just spotted the big bike-shaped present under the tree! Given the past year, I'm sure I may encounter the odd natural disaster. There'll be drinking, dancing, extreme sports, and possibly even a little romance in amongst treading paths both touristic and off-the-beaten track. I plan on patting every mangy critter I encounter between here and Timbuktu, probably at the expense of my travel partner's sanity and my poor mother's health (Caro, you've had your rabies shots!) I want to climb, swim, fly, trek, ride, meander, ski, dive and raft. I'll probably laugh, cry, get sick, get better, wonder, cringe, be baffled, be awed, be repulsed and be bitten by something (no doubt). Temples, mountains, rivers, deserts, beaches, palaces, canyons, meadows, plains and city streets shall all be trampled by my teeny-tiny hiking-boot encased foot.
I hope you enjoy following me around the world. You know it's not going to be boring.