Remembering Sheena

Stop Animal Abuse in Malaysia.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Saving bears - The Jill Robinson story

A DAY IN THE SUN FOR MOON BEARS
by Lisa Owens-Viani


In a bamboo forest along the Pi River, Jill Robinson holds out a finger dipped in honey. The sun peeks through the canopy, illuminating a rusty cage.

Tentatively, a tongue reaches through the bars. "Andrew," an Asiatic black bear, also known as a "moon bear" for the crescent of plush golden fur around his neck, licks the sweet substance from Robinson's finger. It is his first taste of kindness in 20 years.

At a recent talk in San Anselmo, California, Robinson, a petite, soft-spoken British woman, and the director of Animals Asia Foundation (AAF), the non-profit she founded in 1998, told Andrew's story.



Andrew now lives at the Moon Bear Rescue Center in southeastern China, a sanctuary run by AAF. Like most moon bears, Andrew stands six feet tall on his hind legs.

But he lived most of his twenty years on a "bear farm", lying on his belly in a three-foot-wide by three-foot-high by six-foot-long cage. In it, he could neither change positions nor have free access to water.

Like many of the bears AAF has rescued, Andrew was snared in the wild as a cub. One of his legs was mangled in a trap; the farmer probably chopped off what remained.

Immediately after he was captured, Andrew was taken to a grim concrete room filled with rows of tiny elevated iron cages containing other moon bears.

In this room he underwent an operation in which a seven-inch catheter was inserted into his gallbladder. Then, from beneath his cage, the bear farmers would "milk" bile from his gallbladder twice a day in a crude and painful procedure.

In addition to being confined in tiny cages, bears are sometimes further immobilised in metal jackets, torso-squeezing devices like corsets, or in "crush" cages to keep them from protesting during the milking.

In addition to the hundreds of bear farms operating in China, there are many more in North and South Vietnam and Korea.

The products of bear farms are dry bile powder used in Chinese medicines to treat ailments like high fevers, haemorrhoids, liver problems, and sore eyes. The amount of bile powder obtained from one bear per year, from 365 days of torture is only about 2kgs, the size of a small bag of rice.

Although bear bile has been used for thousands of years in traditional Chinese medicine, the practice of "bear farming" is a relatively recent phenomenon.

Traditionally, moon bears and other bears were killed for their gallbladders. But in the early 1980s, North Korean scientists figured out a way to obtain the desirable
products of this organ without killing the animal.

By taking cubs from the wild and extracting their bile while keeping them alive, they could produce a continual flow of "liquid gold".

A few years later, China began bear farming, the Government encouraging the practice in a misguided attempt to conserve the wildlife population. By the early 1990s, there were almost 500 bear farms operating in China, containing over 10,000 bears.

Meanwhile, illegal poaching of wild bears continued, and today, the Chinese Government estimates that less than 15,000 moon bears remain in the wild.

In 1993, things began to look up somewhat for China's moon bears when Robinson, who had been working there for over a decade as a consultant for the International Fund for Animal, was taken to a bear farm.

"I broke away from the group watching the breeding bears outside in a pit and found some steps leading downstairs into a basement. As my eyes became accustomed to the darkness, I heard some strange 'popping' vocalisations in the background.

"The closer I crept to the noises, the louder and more frantic the sounds became. I realised then, with shame, that the very first lesson I would learn from this intelligent, endangered species was the lesson of fear, and that the presence of a human being meant only pain to these animals.

"Caged, declawed, and defanged, with metal catheters in their bellies, they had become nothing more than machines," she said.

Robinson wandered around the dark room, numb and in shock at the medieval scene. What happened next would change her life forever.

"I felt something gently touch my shoulder. I spun around, coming face to face with a female bear that had stretched her paw through the bars of her cage. Probably foolishly in retrospect, I took her offered paw.

"Yet, rather than pulling my arm from its socket as she had every right to do, this powerful bear simply squeezed my fingers, and our eyes connected."

Robinson named the bear Hong ("bear" in Cantonese), and while she never managed to save her, that moment was the beginning of Robinson's fight to free all farmed bears.

AAF is now working with the Chinese government to close bear farms. When a farm is closed, the government turns its license over to AAF, and the farmers are compensated and given assistance to find new employment.

Yet Robinson has a Herculean task ahead of her. Although the Government has promised not to issue any additional licenses, 7,000 bears remain on farms. To date, AAF has been able to rescue only 130 bears. Robinson hopes they will save another 100 this year.

Meanwhile, bears continue to arrive at the Moon Bear Rescue Center in Chengdu, often in deplorable condition. Moon bears are intelligent, curious creatures who need lots of mental stimulation, said Robinson.

Life in such extreme captivity has caused some of them to bang their heads or wear down their teeth on the cage bars, even to chew at their own legs in frustration.

Some of the bears weigh less than half what a healthy bear should weigh. At least 30 per cent of the wild-caught bears are missing a limb or two. Some have had their canine teeth sawed off or the tips of their paws cut off, to take away their defences and make them easier to "milk".

But as soon as the bears arrive at the centre, their lives take a turn for the better. They are immediately given a light shower of water through their cage bars.

Often severely dehydrated, the bears lap at the water eagerly. Rescue centre employees also offer them bowls of honey, fruit, and other sweet treats. Once the bears are rehydrated and sedated, an ultrasound examination is performed to help veterinarians determine the bears' internal injuries.

Often, the animals have tumours, mutilated gallbladders, hernias, abscesses, or equipment left behind from previous botched surgeries. Surgery is then performed to remove their catheters and repair their wounds. Occasionally, a bear is so badly injured it must be euthanised.

After the bears have recovered - several weeks or even months later, depending on their injuries - they can begin to live lives free of pain and confinement. But they cannot ever be released.

Many lack limbs; most never learned the skills they need to survive in the wild, as they were captured as cubs. But at the sanctuary, they can socialise with other bears, swim in a pool, climb into a bamboo basket, swing in a hammock, follow a fruit and honey trail, or crawl through a tunnel.

They are given nutritious, tasty food for the first time - cereal, meat protein, veggies, fruit, and rice. They especially enjoy eating giant "Popsicles", which are one-foot-square blocks of ice containing chunks of fruit and vegetables that keep them happily occupied for over an hour at a time.

And for the first time in many of their lives, they have free access to water.

Robinson won't rest until she's done her best to help the 7,000 bears that remain on farms. AAF is exploring the possibility of acquiring more farmland surrounding the sanctuary, which would offer space for several hundred more rescued bears.

She hopes that bears like Hong did not die in vain, but will continue to inspire the battle to save living bears. "Each bear has a story to tell. We can learn from them and use them to bring bear farming to an end," said Robinson.

At Robinson's talk in San Anselmo, one member of the audience wondered whether it wouldn't be "more practical and cheaper" to euthanise all of the farmed bears.

Robinson's response? "These bears have been through hell and back. The fact that they recover so surprisingly well, have a love for life which is obvious to see, and actually forgive the species that has caused them so much suffering, moves all of us deeply. I believe they have earned their day in the sun."

4 Comments:

  • At 12:09 AM, Blogger Louisa Ponnampalam said…

    Thanks for posting this story.Very touching indeed.

    Animals have that special way to move us and I can never understand how there are people out there who are so indifferent!

    It is stories like these and people like Jill Robinson who continue to inspire me to do what I do...to keep on pushing forward.

    I hope that this story has (and I'm sure it has)inspired many people to be better advocates of animals and wildlife!

    Cheerio!
    Louisa

     
  • At 5:36 PM, Blogger Jo-anne Kaye said…

    I am deeply touched by Jill Robinson's story. It just goes to prove what one person can do.

    If I am correct, the Remembering Sheena Campaign also started out because one person felt deeply touched by the plight of Sheena, the German Shepherd that was almost starved to death, and was ultimately put to sleep.

    Now, I regularly visit your blog, although I have never previously left any comment. I guess most Malaysians are like me ... to lazy to leave a comment.

    But Louisa Ponnampalam is showing us the way - that we must keep commenting so that this blog will continue with the wonderful work you people are doing.

    As Shoba says in one of her posts, together we can do a lot save our animal friends from a life of cruelty.

    I pray that more people will come forward not just to post comments, but volunteer in your education programme and other activities.

    You are doing an excellent job of helping other societies such as SPCA and PAWS in their work, and I for one fully support you in this. Keep up the excellent work!

    Jo-anne Kaye

     
  • At 8:47 PM, Blogger Shoba said…

    Thank you Joanne. Yes, Jill Robinson is quite something, isn't she?

    If you think China and the terrible track record it has for violation of both human and animal rights, you'll have a pretty good idea of the superhuman feat this English lady must have had to face to achieve all that she has today.

    We at RSC don't know how much we will achieve with our campaign. All we know is that we cannot forgive ourselves if we don't even try.

    Thanks Joanne for commenting. You are right. We need people to comment to keep this an active, lively and interesting blog.

    Do keep posting. We'd love to hear from you.

    Shoba Mano.

     
  • At 8:47 PM, Blogger Shoba said…

    Thank you Joanne. Yes, Jill Robinson is quite something, isn't she?

    If you think China and the terrible track record it has for violation of both human and animal rights, you'll have a pretty good idea of the superhuman feat this English lady must have had to face to achieve all that she has today.

    We at RSC don't know how much we will achieve with our campaign. All we know is that we cannot forgive ourselves if we don't even try.

    Thanks Joanne for commenting. You are right. We need people to comment to keep this an active, lively and interesting blog.

    Do keep posting. We'd love to hear from you.

    Shoba Mano.

     

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