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20th Anniversary: From a dream to a movement, promises kept and lives changed

On the 8th of August 1998 Animals Asia was born. In the room of a house in Hong Kong, five friends and passionate animal lovers, inspired by the memory of just one bear, created a "child" which has matured and grown into something more remarkable than we could ever dared to have hoped.

The start of the journey saw John, Boris, Gail, Winnie and I all scrambling onto a double-decker open-top bus in Hong Kong, hanging green Animals Asia banners along the sides, and waving excitedly down to the bemused public in the streets below.

The day was blistering hot, our tail-wagging dogs were wilting and needing regular dousing with water, but our smiles were wide and our hearts were full, as we held dreams and goals and so much optimism that mountains for animals could be moved. That day, in our very first newsletter we promised not to let our supporters or the animals down – and I believe that today, two decades later, that promise has been kept.

Those early days of rescuing bears together with government officials in China will be forever etched on my mind. The responsibility the authorities carried was immense and while we work in an extremely difficult and sensitive field today, many of the same officials we still know well are as kindly and as helpful as they were all those years ago.

Boris and I stood on the stage with them again earlier this month to celebrate our anniversary and our years of collaboration in China, widening the circle of compassion under President Xi's banner of promoting "harmony between humanity and nature". We also announced our new annual celebration of Moon Bear Day which will take place annually in August and continue to support our work in China for many years to come.

Today, we are of course older and much, much wiser. Over 600 bears have been saved, and our goal of ending bear bile farming in Vietnam is tantalisingly close. We look to the future with anticipation and excitement as the Vietnamese government looks upon us as its official main partner to completely end the bear bile industry by 2022.

Tuan, our fearless leader in Vietnam deserves the highest accolade on the planet for his patience and perseverance in reaching this stage, even if now he'll be blushing as vividly as his bright red socks!

Animals Asia's founder and CEO Jill Robinson MBE and Vietnam Director Tuan Bendixsen meet Quang Ninh Forestry Director Pham Van Phat, #ForgetMeNot rescue 2015

So many thank yous and too little space. Thank you to our Boards for keeping us on track.  For all the rigor and scrutiny you so rightly demand, and for your kindness and counsel in being so hands on. For a board to be as invested as you are is a source of both comfort and satisfaction, and is hugely important to keep us shipshape and safe.

I’m proud to work alongside the affable and tenacious Dave Neale who heads up our Captive Animal Welfare programme and has been my friend since 2002. He and his teams in China and Vietnam are forging a trail of respect and tangible change for animals who have looked out at the world from behind bars. Not a month goes past when Dave doesn't see us all do a happy dance when hearing of a newly un-chained elephant, a gibbon with sight restored, a healed polar bear or a classroom of children promising to be animal champions of the world.

Dave Neale and Jake Veasey with Gold the elephant at ECC

Similarly, thanks and gratitude to our determined and focused Irene Feng and team who steel themselves at the start of every investigation into animal markets and dog and cat slaughterhouses where they document the grave abuse and injustice of our very best friends.

Their trailblazing work leaves no avenue unexplored as they work with the Chinese government and over 150 local animal welfare groups across the country shining a spotlight on cruelty and illegality at every single stage of the "black industry" chain. Together with our Dr Dog and Professor Paws ambassadors, and their caring families, we have shown many thousands of people that dogs and cats are our friends, not food.

Cat and Dog Welfare Director Irene Feng and Founder and CEO Jill met Tozhai the dog in China market, 2010

At our sanctuaries in Chengdu, China and Tam Dao National Park, Vietnam, our inspirational Vet and Bear teams give sanctuary to hundreds of bears. The growth in expertise, in commitment and love, and in the health and happiness of every individual bear, shows what a small number of dedicated people can achieve – even with resources way beyond stretched. Thank you all for giving our bears happy lives and their peaceful passing – always with the dignity and respect they deserve.

Our global family of small country teams, finance, marketing, fundraising, communications, creative and welfare and our local sanctuary staff of almost 200 are unrivaled in their determination, and in their willingness to work around the clock when required. Those like Mavis Fan, our in-house designer who created our stunning 20th Anniversary logo. There are so many unsung heroes working diligently behind the scenes to keep this organisation professional, efficient and on track to achieve our goals for animals.

And behind this army, is an even greater one upon whose compassion every success is based. That is you, our friends and supporters around the world. It is only because of your belief, commitment and dedication that cages are emptied and cruelty is ended. We know the health and happiness of the bears are in your hands and we are privileged to work on your behalf. Thank you to the moon, and back, for never giving up on the animals who need you most.

And thank you to the bears and all the other animals who have rescued us and have shared their beautiful lives with ours over these twenty long years. Our garden of rest  may be full, but its tranquility and energy always reminds me of the gentle spirits sleeping peacefully underneath. Those spirits have encouraged us to never give up and to hold our focus on inspiring a world of respect.

Thank you to the bears who came into our lives in 1994 even before Animals Asia was born (another story!) – who taught us well when we were so green around the gills. To our logo bear Xie Sheung, to moon bears Boris, Cookie, Digger, Elizabeth, Chu Chu, Donny, and to dear Hong who remains with us in Chengdu to this day.

Our gratitude to Andrew for teaching us forgiveness in the year 2000 when our tears flowed and our hearts raged. To Douglas, another "uncle" of the sanctuary who taught us how to deal with ursine temper tantrums and replace his anguished frustration with calmness and peace. To Jasper who made us laugh and be children again as we witnessed him "photo-bombing" time and time again by the fenceline. Even after he passed away this charismatic bear has managed to create a photo on my computer that pops up without being asked.

Jasper takes a bath

To all the bears still with us, lifting our spirits and reminding us why all the hard work is so utterly indispensable. To see little sun bear Murphy, who arrived as a tiny cub, grow into a confident fun-loving little “teen” is a daily reminder of why we are needed and the difference we can make. We can never return Murphy to his mother but we can ensure he never knows cruelty or suffering for the rest of his life.

To the sleeping giants and living legends, who motivate and inspire for the next 20 years. We have so much to be thankful for, so many to thank and we will never stop fighting for you all, until the cruelty ends.

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