Written by Nell Alk. Photos #1 and 2 by Jo-Anne McArthur of Animals Asia Foundation.
Those in the know know that Western culture has a tremendously long way to go regarding the way we treat other species. We also know that the animal protection movement is a global one, not to be constrained to praising or criticizing the practices of any one region in particular.
Still, when Western animal advocates think about China, we generally think of the world’s most merciless environment of animal abuse. Even cursory protection laws there seem either non-existent or unenforced, and, culturally, there seem to be no “sacred cows.” We think about dogs and cats routinely factory farmed; insane folk traditions about ingesting tigers’ testicles or rhinos’ horns to enhance sexual performance; stray dogs (and sometimes domesticated ones) being bludgeoned to death on the street by government authorities; the world’s highest consumption of fur products, the world’s largest exports of finished fur products, and the world’s least regulated fur farming industry, relentlessly torturing and then skinning animals, often while still alive; unchecked industrial pollution extinguishing local species such as the baiji; and bile farms where native Moon Bears are kept in immobilizing “crush cages” for up to thirty years in order to painfully milk their bile for its inessential medicinal value via open-wound catheters. All this is in addition to practicing the familiar animal exploitations we know too well in the West but with even less regulation or political pressure to meet minimal standards of care.
That’s a long rap sheet. Yet news of local resistance—a dramatic citizen rescue of dogs on their way to slaughter, or the establishment of a new Moon Bear sanctuary—is peeking optimistically through, and if you’ve heard of those bear sanctuaries, you’ve heard about the work of a singular and determined organization: Animals Asia. Begun by Jill Robinson in 1998, the nonprofit is devoted to the protection of both wild and urban animals in Asia. As part of a measured yet ambitious campaign to end bear farming, Animals Asia has established several sanctuaries, providing safe havens for abused bears and logistical solutions for what do with the bears whenever the organization manages to close such a farm. That’s happened an impressive 43 times, by the way.
Offering an inside look at some of what Animals Asia does, award-winning documentary Cages of Shame screened last month at New York City’s Rubin Museum. It depicts the rewards and challenges (not to mention the emotions) involved in a rescue operation. The 45-minute film is enlightening, moving, and mercifully light-handed when it comes to the really gruesome stuff.
Lucky for those in attendance, founder Robinson was on hand for a Q&A following the screening. When asked if she’d ever crawled inside a cage herself, she responded, “I have. It’s one of the first things I did. I wanted to feel those unrelenting bars on my body. Utterly claustrophobic. It’s just horrible. One week would be too much.” Of the doc, she says, “It still gets me. It gets me every time, watching the reruns. Everything these bears go through. So much physical and psychological trauma. But it keeps us going.” As do, increasingly, the Chinese people themselves: “This film really reflects the integrity of so many people in China today. People that are behind us one-hundred percent.”
Indeed, she explains, “This last year has seen nothing short of a revolution in China. I’m so proud of the groups that are vocalizing against this industry. The individuals, government officials, celebrities, everybody across the country that’s behind Animals Asia and our role in ending bear farming.” Robinson qualifies this by adding that, actually, “Animals Asia’s role is to stand behind the people of China now. The Chinese people are outraged.”
Like every good resistance story, there was an unexpected twist. As per the recommendations of Animals Asia’s native team of cultural advisors, 2012 was supposed to be a year of “flying below the radar, doing the work, building the evidence,” because of the hypersensitive charged atmosphere ahead of China’s political elections in 2013. But that advice became impossible to follow when leading bear bile producer Guizhentang Pharmaceutical “had the temerity to try and go public on the stock exchange,” as Robinson put it. This thrust the controversial topic of bear farming—and the foremost experts on the issue, Animals Asia—directly into the spotlight.
What could have resulted in deeper entrenchment of the status quo instead catalyzed a movement for change. “Since then, our feet haven’t touched the ground,” Robinson says. “People began to look more into the issue. An undercover film crew released a film about bear farming from a Chinese perspective and it got into the hearts and minds of the Chinese. Suddenly all hell broke loose.” And, while Animals Asia promised the notoriously disorder-averse Chinese government they wouldn’t demonstrate or organize stunts, Robinson proudly says, “Guess who’s doing those stunts now? The Chinese people. We’re seeing public demonstrations in Communist China!”
She continued, “We’re [approaching] a tipping point in China. Animal rights is a movement in China. When I first started [this kind of work] 26 years ago, there was one animal welfare group, in Beijing. Now there are close to one hundred animal welfare groups across the country. It’s the fastest developing movement I’ve ever seen. It’s phenomenal.” Additionally, while the national government isn’t condemning bile farming, it also isn’t defending the practice as it once did, which illustrates how remarkably the conversation has already shifted. Perhaps even more telling, twenty of China’s thirty-one provinces have banned the practice. Many of China’s doctors have also joined the fray, noting the existence of legitimate herbal and synthetic substitutes for those who still insist on ingesting ursodeoxycholic acid (UDCA), which is the mildly medicinal element of bear bile.
Thousands of Miles Away
Now that the Chinese people are doing their part to fight bile farming, Animals Asia is looking to New Yorkers to keep the momentum going. All the better that we can do so via one of our favorite pastimes: shopping! NYC’s premier ethical shoe source, MooShoes, will donate 10% of all proceeds from items sold (both in-store and online) TODAY, Saturday May 12, to Animals Asia. Details here. Room, board, and care for one sanctuaried bear costs approximately $1,300 a month—something to which we New Yorkers can especially relate—so this is a great way to look good and give a lifeline to an animal in need at the same time.
Secondly, May and June mark Animals Asia’s Beards for Bears campaign. Dudes, it’s time to get hairy. Just sign up here, stop shaving, take a photo of your scruffy self, and invite friends to sponsor you. It’s that simple. Ladies, you needn’t feel left out, as you can be ambassadors for your fuzzy guy friends, and as part of the Beards effort, both guys and gals can snag limited-edition tees courtesy of eco-friendly skateboard company Hendrick Boards. Peep the apparel here.
And of course, you can always donate directly. As Robinson reiterated at the April film screening, “Please don’t underestimate your help. Thousands of miles away, you are still our lifeblood.”