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I pray that you have die

Dear Hong,

I pray that you have died.

It was a beautiful spring day when I walked out of the sunshine and into the basement where you and 31 other moon bears were suffering your living hell.

That dark, dirty room, stinking of faeces and infection, and you all peering grimly into the gloom from your "coffin" cages. I remember my chest tightening with fear coming so close to such large and intimidating bears, but then recoiling in horror, a lightning bolt of shock to my heart, witnessing animals so clearly in pain.

The eyes that followed me around the room as I walked past, mentally counting the multiple examples of physical and psychological abuse. Long metal rods protruding from bleeding, infected holes in your abdomens, and numerous injuries to your skeletal bodies. What had the farmers done? What had they thought, as they caused such pain to extract your bile?

And then I saw you. Actually I felt you first, as you reached your paw through the cage and touched my right shoulder. The surge of fear was quickly replaced by a desolate sadness as I looked into your miserable, pleading brown eyes. Your beautiful lemon crescent – shining in contrast to the ugliness, and covering a heart beating in agony during the years of torture you must have endured on the farm.

My reckless reaction of reaching out to the paw you offered – and feeling a gentle, vulnerable squeeze in return. For several seconds we held that moment – each of us lost in misery, communicating across species.

Twenty years ago to the day, I named you Hong ("bear" in Cantonese), giving you an identity and respect you'd never had before, and making a solemn promise that if I couldn't help you, I would try to help others of your species who were destined to suffer like you.

And then I left that awful place, somehow knowing I would never see you again.

To this day the "popping" vocalisations that I first heard on that farm – signalling bears that are stressed and afraid – still haunt me. We hear it on the farms we investigate still, and when rescued bears arrive at our sanctuaries in China and Vietnam – how can they tell the difference at first between us and the farmers responsible for their pain?

The weeks and months following that visit on 17th April 1993 saw a learning curve that couldn't have been more vertical. I was happy to be consulting for IFAW at the time, but launching Animals Asia in 1998 was a strategic move recognising that the plight of the bears could be best understood and addressed from a "local" perspective by people who had lived or worked in Asia itself.

Taking on board the words of one Chinese government official who advised us to "start the debate in China", we began building a core team of people who shared similar principles – passionate, professional people to represent the bears and work with the authorities and local communities to end bear bile farming.

Today, we have what I consider to be the best team in the world. A united, focused family of Animals Asia staff, volunteers and supporters across the globe – not to mention two global award-winning sanctuaries in China and Vietnam where nearly 400 rescued victims of the bile farm industry have made their home so far.

These sanctuaries provide safe havens for bears who have been tortured for years. They also provide employment for about 250 mostly local, and also foreign, staff and are the basis for countrywide educational programmes and our all-important scientific and veterinary research that is providing evidence of the cruelty of bear bile farming, and the severe impact on welfare and conservation of several endangered species of bear.

Today, bear bile farming is an "issue" in China, where 20 provinces are now proudly bear-farm free. Just last year, the bear bile industry was one of the top 10 issues discussed online in the country – and I received a memorable call from a supporter in Shanghai who said, "You can step back now Jill, this is our fight now." 

Today the hope is in the people of China and Vietnam, as groups and individuals rise up to challenge the cruelty – and the traditions of the past. The explosion of outrage in China especially, as people hold the farmers (and all those who claim the practice is regulated and humane) to scrutiny. Our graveyard is full with the bodies of over 130 bears to dispute such outrageous claims – bears we have named and loved and respected, our ambassadors of truth, the reality of this disgusting and abusive trade.

Not surprisingly, with the spotlight on their livelihoods, the farmers are fighting back. Over the past few months we have seen threats, relentless hacking of our website, smears on our character and more. But we have also seen a new China – good and principled people, clearly hating such a shameful practice.

Just this weekend, I joined our fabulous education team in Beijing for "Love Moon Bears Week", which is seeing schools across the country collaborating in our latest campaign. In schools across China, the words, “Wo ai yue xiong” (I love moon bears) echoed across playgrounds as students and teachers gathered together to spell out the letters B.E.A.R – and make their feelings known. (Please see the pics in my previous post.)

Our long-running ‘Healing without Harm’ campaign – in partnership with traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) practitioners – continues to urge the replacement of all bear bile products. In China, we have seen thousands of individual TCM doctors and 40 pharmacists clearing their shelves of bear bile and pledging never to sell it again. As TCM doctor Professor Liu Zheng Cai, who has been consulting with Animals Asia for the past 10 years, says: “The bears have cancer themselves, so how can they possibly cure it?”

With bear bile farming fast becoming distasteful and unacceptable across Asia, we continue working on our strategy to end the industry in both China and Vietnam – it’s the only strategy that will work because people benefit as well as the bears.

In Vietnam, we’ve seen a win against impossible odds, with the Prime Minister overturning an eviction order against our sanctuary. Construction will start again soon and, once complete, we will have room to hold a total of 200 bears. The number of farmed bears in the country has fallen from around 4,000 bears to 2,400 today, and we are optimistic that ongoing work and public education by ourselves and other NGO's in the country will see bear bile farming finally ended there too.

As I remember you again today Hong, I want to thank you for starting the dream of the Moon Bear Rescue exactly 20 years ago. The dream has since helped hundreds of bears, and has seen this week's rescued cubs – Misty and Rain, whose mother must surely have been killed – slowly encouraged to forget their violent and traumatic past. The dream sees bears like handsome Jasper (below, in the crush cage at the farm where he was imprisoned, and today, relaxing in a pool at our sanctuary) and Oliver, and their kin in both sanctuaries, walking out into the spring sunshine with the confidence of individuals who know their lives are safe.

I'm sorry for wishing you dead Hong – but death is a peaceful place away from pain and torture, and I simply couldn't bear to think of you still being farmed and suffering today.

Rest in peace and please never forget the words of our poem to all those bears on farms, still waiting for their freedom.

"Please look upon the others, and give them promise of hope soon.
And tell them to be patient, and always wear the moon."

My promise – and now that of all in Animals Asia – is as sincere and focused as it was in 1993. Until the cruelty ends…. 

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