Last weekend marked Moon Bear Day across the globe. The Moon bear, also known as the Asian black bear, is identified by its shaggy black fur and the distinctive white-yellow crescent across its chest.
These beautiful, medium-sized bears are found in Southeast Asia. Several moon bear populations face the risk of extinction due to loss of habitat through deforestation, but in some of the most shocking cases of industrialised animal cruelty; they are also affected by human exploitation in bear bile farms.
Bear bile farms exist to extract the bile of moon bears to be used in traditional Chinese medicine — the bears exist in coffin-sized cages their entire life, with crude catheters protruding from their gallbladders — prone to injury and infection.
As I’ve mentioned on this blog before, the surplus ‘stock’ of moon bear bile extracted from the animals has begun to make its way into cosmetic products and toiletries such as toothpaste and cleanser — ‘new product developments’, which show that as available stock increases, as does demand.
The remarkable story of Jill Robinson and the creation of Animals Asia
In the midst of this shocking treatment of Moon Bears, one women has made it her life’s mission to see the end of bear bile farms.
Jill Robinson, began rescuing bears in 1994, and founded Animals Asia in 1998, to rescue and re-home bears from the shocking conditions of these farms, in award-winning bear rescue sanctuaries in China and Vietnam.
The extraordinary story of Jill Robinson and her tireless work to end the inhumane act of bear bile farming in Asia is told in the inspiring film; Jill Robinson: To the Moon and Back, directed by Andrew Telling and produced by Natalie Coles.
Jill Robinson: To the Moon and Back
‘To the Moon and Back’ tells the remarkable story of Jill’s inspirational journey to save moon bears and create the only organisation with a bear sanctuary in China.
The film is narrated by animal advocate and actor Peter Egan; who interviews his dear friend Jill for the film, and includes appearances from the likes of Born Free’s Virginia McKenna and the Animals Asia vet team.
I was lucky enough to speak to filmmakers Natalie and Andrew about their experience in making the documentary — and they’re giving one lucky winner the chance to win a copy! Keep reading to find out more…
Kate: Hi Andrew and Natalie. What motivated you to make the film?
Andrew: You may remember that during the summer of 2015, a then-unknown American dentist called Walter Palmer took a trip to Africa where he hunted and killed a lion called Cecil. The global condemnation was vast and vitriolic. But we noticed from various social media outlets that among the anger and sadness, there was also a feeling of hopelessness. In fact, we all felt disempowered and thoroughly inert in the face of something that appeared to be ‘quite legal’. How could that be?
In the most graphic way, we realised that just because it’s within the law, it doesn’t make it right. The mass feeling of inertia was the most worrying aspect, as millions of animal loving people across the world questioned how they could make a difference when something so abhorrent was sanctioned. What can one person do against the unchecked march of hunters when a government says it’s OK?
If ever there’s a person to inspire at times like this, it is Jill Robinson.
In China, bear bile farming is still legal. When Jill started her drive to end it, it was significantly more prolific and less known than it is now. When she began, Jill was much like the millions of angry and emotional people who saw countless images of that bespectacled dentist draped over Cecil the lion. With nothing more than her resolve, Jill peacefully and intelligently rose to begin a movement that has changed local perceptions towards animal welfare in China and Vietnam.
Jill was not wealthy or privileged and the path was predictably difficult. But, she did it. She saw animal suffering that was perfectly legal in a politically charged and socially complicated country. She overcame the fury, emotion and inertia and made a change.
For us, it was a story that had to be told – to enthuse, inspire and motivate anyone and everyone in to facing up to these animal welfare atrocities.
Wow! It’s clear that this is a story that had to be told. Natalie, how did you get involved?
Natalie: I met Andrew for the first time when I interviewed for the Producer role on this project. We bonded straight away over our love of Jill Robinson, Animals Asia and our passion for animal welfare.
I have been a supporter of Animals Asia and in awe of Jill Robinson’s tireless work rescuing bears from the bile farms ever since I learnt about her whilst working on ‘The British Animal Honours 2013’ for ITV.
As soon as I met Jill I was hooked, if you ever meet her you will know what I mean! She really is the most incredible person I have ever met, and the cruelty that these bears face every single day is truly heartbreaking.
Having come from a TV production background, where you don’t always have the final editorial say, it was very important to us both that this film would be a true representation of Jill and Animals Asia and not over sensationalised.
The film was released in 2017, what impact has it had on people?
Natalie: The feedback has been wonderful but what was really interesting was how many of the younger generation found it so inspiring.
I guess we wanted to show how one women/man/person can change the world and Jill is proof of that, without making it unattainable.
Wild Screen in Bristol put on a screening with Q + A and it was attended by many aspiring zoology graduates and filmmakers, who nearly all said how they expected it to be a really dark and sad film, but were surprised by how inspiring it was.
That’s great! Where did the idea for the narrative come from?
Andrew: As Natalie mentioned, the film has been very well received. But the most important thing for a filmmaker working in the area of animal welfare is not to become complacent with reviews.
Many of the people who have sought out this film have an affinity with animal welfare and so feel moved by the plight of the bears and Jill. But it’s those who don’t have much of an interest (or at least, think they don’t) that we need to reach too.
As much as YouTube and social media have given a voice to those who once weren’t heard, the most popular are still the very tip of an extremely big iceberg.
People still rely on broadcasters to put films in front of the masses and unfortunately, they’re ratings led which means they can’t take the kinds of risks and chances on films pertaining to the rough edge of animal welfare.
I’ve heard this directly from a commissioner working at the BBC – he said that people aren’t interested in animal welfare so they can’t risk losing audiences by showing it. It’s a huge shame because there are so many stories and issues globally that need public attention for them to stand any chance of ending. I guess we must work harder and smarter to make films people want to watch on platforms that have an impact.
That’s so true, and I definitely feel like I’m on the same mission over here with my blog! So, what is it about Jill’s work that means so much to you?
Natalie: Jill’s work with Animals Asia gives me hope that, despite the often massive uphill challenges faced when it comes to animal welfare, people will start to take note if you keep chipping away in a tenacious and intelligent way. There’s a quote Jill often recites, ‘first they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.’
It’s such a powerful saying and absolutely true; Animals Asia are well into the fighting stage and closer to winning than ever before.
Andrew: There’s no doubt that Jill had some incredibly dark and scary nights when she began her journey. It’s important to understand that she had next to nothing – only a dream and a huge amount of resolve. And you must remember that Jill was a young British woman who came to China in the 1980’s to take on a deeply established and ‘traditional’ form of animal cruelty.
Imagine how that must have been? Imagine the size and scale of the task that lay ahead in a country 39 times bigger than the UK? A country with men at the heart of power and an industry generating millions by selling bile for hundreds of baseless cures, tinctures and potions? Only then do you begin to appreciate the mountain that Jill has climbed.
She is the kindest, warmest, strongest warrior I have ever met. A one-of-a-kind leader who inspires all she meets. Someone who sits on the shoulders of giants; fearless and committed to every moon bear, sun bear, brown bear…every animal at risk from the dark side of mankind.
What an incredible person! Another incredible voice for animals, Peter Egan, features in the film – what was his connection to the story?
Andrew: Peter’s a truly remarkable man who works tirelessly for animal welfare. And when I say tirelessly, I mean that!
His schedule of acting and animal advocacy is often brutal and yet he won’t let up or slow down, such is his commitment to the humane treatment of animals.
He’s also an extremely good friend of ours and we work together on many projects, hence have developed a fantastic rapport. And as an Ambassador for Animals Asia, he was the perfect choice to feature in and narrate Moon and Back.
It’s evident from the film that his intelligent questions and relaxed, enquiring nature bring out the very best in those he’s speaking to.
The film also gives mention to the dog meat trade in Asia, why was it important to include this in the story?
Andrew: The dog and cat meat trade is one of the most appalling, haunting and devastating things I have ever seen. We’ve filmed in a live animal market and it’s not something you forget.
Animals Asia work extensively in this area, so it was critical to include this in the film. And their hard work is beginning to yield some really positive changes — on 27 May this year, China’s new National Catalogue of Livestock and Poultry Genetic Resources was announced, with dogs and cats not included on the list. There’s a really interesting interview we created with Jill and Lesley Nicol about this, which you can view here.
I can’t wait to check the video out! You say you visited a live animal market; have you ever visited a bear bile farm?
Andrew: I went to a bear farm in Nanning back in 2014 with Jill and the actress and Animals Asia Ambassador Lesley Nicol.
Animals Asia had just taken control so were in the process of giving the bears medical attention, a better diet and as much space as was possible.
The strongest memory I have is filming a surgery of one of the bears called Pickle. She had never had any form of care or attention, so this was a raw look into the health of a bear who had spent years at the hands of the bear farmers. Because it was an old farm, surgery had to take place on the floor of an old office with as much kit Animals Asia could bring with them on a plane.
It was unsterile, 42 degrees and the surgery went on for 4 hours, removing the rotten teeth that were infected by years or bar biting — a neurological response to being caged.
It’s hard to imagine but removing teeth from a moon bear is brutal and exhausting for the vet team. They are huge and pretty much all of them needed to come out.
Further surgery would have to be done back at the Chengdu operating theatre as it involved more delicate work. For example, almost all bears need to have their gall bladders removed as a result of being decimated by the bile drip. Plus, there are other issues, cancers for example, that need careful and planned attention. Still, watching the Animals Asia bear and vet team operate in Nanning was remarkable.
Natalie: I have not visited a bear bile farm, but its something I would still like to do. I know it will not be easy, but I do believe it is important to see these things first hand. Perhaps there will be a second film and we can touch on the more dark side to the industry.
Do you see a time where these bear bile farms are obsolete? And what about the impact of Covid-19, do you think the renewed focus on wild animal markets and zoonotic diseases will have an impact on the demand for moon bear bile?
Andrew: Yes, absolutely. The MOU (Memorandum of Understanding) has been signed in Vietnam to make bear bile farming illegal. It will take a number of years for that to come into full effect as there are hundreds (if not thousands) of bears in small farms that will need to be rescued.
In China, it’s a different matter. However, the conversations being held at high levels of Government are promising, and the younger generation of Chinese government officials are generally very supportive of change.
I genuinely believe that bear bile farming will be outlawed in China in our lifetimes. And it’s so important to remember that none of this would be happening were it not for Jill’s drive, passion and tenacity to build such a remarkable organisation.
There are so many incredible people in Animals Asia that it’s impossible to mention all of them, but it would be remis of us not to shine a light on Boris Chiao – founding member and Programme Director and Tuan Bendixsen – Vietnam Director. Truly incredible people!
I think the Covid-19 outbreak will shed more of a light on the issue, revealing it to the rest of the world who will, hopefully, condemn it and support charities like Animals Asia. But bear bile users and farmers are unlikely to make any immediate changes. For many socio-economic reasons…and often just pure pig-headedness – the die-hard bile enthusiasts are incredibly hard to change!
Natalie: I would really like to think so but sadly unless the authorities get behind banning these markets and the farms and then implementing really tough enforcement laws, I worry this will still be everyday life in some parts of Asia for a long time.
On the opposite side of the scale, what was it like visiting the Animals Asia sanctuary? What hope can we draw from this story?
Andrew: Much of Moon and Back was filmed at Animals Asia’s Chengdu sanctuary. It’s an absolute haven for bears and definitely a life changing experience.
To see the once broken bears playing freely in their huge enclosures, enjoying grass and frolicking in water for the first time is absolutely magical. Every single one of them carries the scars from the bear bile industry. And some are luckier than others having avoided lost limbs, eyes, teeth…the list, sadly, goes on.
Natalie: But it’s a place of peace and love. Everything that happens there happens for the good of the bears. The staff all work towards a single goal and do so with grace and hope. In many ways, a week at the Chengdu sanctuary changes you. You can see the result of Animals Asia’s work by looking in to any one of the vast enclosures and watching the bears live the happy lives for which they were intended.
Andrew: A visit to the operating theatre, and there’s a visceral reminder of the physical traumas these bears have been exposed to. Unimaginable pain and suffering that the vet team repair to the best of their incredible abilities.
And then there’s the graveyard — a final resting place for every bear that succumbed, eventually, to the deep and irreparable injuries sustained from a life on the bile farm.
The crescent shaped headstones and earth mounds are peaceful reminders of the fragility of life and the responsibility we all have to protect animals from those humans that exploit them, no matter the pain and no matter the horrors.
Natalie: There’s hope though, that no matter how big the challenge you think you face, fighting for what is right, there is always a light at the end of the tunnel. Anything is possible when you put your mind, soul and passion behind it. Jill is an absolute animal welfare hero.
Finally, what should tourists do if they encounter these moon bearfarms or bear bile products on their travels?
Natalie: Never buy anything that contains bear bile and never pay to hold a captive wild animal. Never pay to visit a bile farm.
Animals Asia have a number of resources on their website, and if tourists see a moon bear or any other animal in awful conditions and are worried for their welfare, they can contact https://www.bornfree.org.uk/RAISE-THE-RED-FLAG who have started a great initiative to report any concerns and highlight animal welfare issues on captive animals around the world.
Thank you both so much for your time — and for offering one lucky reader the chance to win a copy of the film! What can we expect from you both next?
Andrew: We’re planning a film in Vietnam where an MOU (Memorandum of Understanding) has been signed to end bear bile farming for good. It was something planned for May of this year but due to Covid, it’s been postponed to 2021.
Natalie: I am currently working on an exciting project for National Geographic, I can not say much more — but there will be some seriously cute animal babies involved. And fingers crossed more filming with Andrew and the bears.
Jill Robinson: to the Moon and Back can be purchased on Amazon here.
Check out the film trailer here: https://www.orangeplanetpictures.com/films-and-documentaries
WIN! A copy of the film on DVD and a Moon Bear print!
*COMPETITION NOW CLOSED* You can win a copy of Jill Robinson: To The Moon and Back, PLUS this beautiful Inca the Moon bear print by Lauren Westwood.
TO ENTER: If you’d like to be in with a chance of winning, simply answer the question: What lasting change would you like to see for animals in 2020?
Leave your answer in the comments below by 31st August 2020. One lucky winner will be chosen to win this prize bundle, and notified on 1st September 2020. Good luck!