Rescuing bears from the horrors of the bile trade

“Never before had I felt so shocked or helpless; sick to my stomach with the reality of what these creatures had suffered.”

Jill and her beloved dogs at the rescue centre

Jill Robinson always knew she wanted to help make a difference for animals, but in 1993 the direction of her future was changed forever, after just one visit to a bear bile farm in southern China.

At that time Jill was working for the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) and a friend told her about a bear farm in China that he had just visited.

A week later, Jill joined a group of tourists who were visiting the farm. The group was met outside by the farms’ owners, a husband and his wife both boasting about all the ailments their bile could cure.

“There was a circular bear pit of breeding bears near the entrance and the owners were encouraging the tourists to buy apples on strings to tease the bears with,” recalls Jill.

When the tourists began buying the apples, or purchasing the bile products from the shop, Jill took the opportunity to explore the farm further.

What she found hidden out of public view revealed the true horror of the bear bile industry.

“Absolutely nothing prepared me for that moment,” Jill says. “Thirty-two moon bears stared forlornly out of their crush cages, making nervous popping voculisations every time I approached them.”

‘Crush cages’ are just that – small cages the bears are kept in, often for their entire lives. The cages, not much bigger than the bears themselves, prevent them from standing up and, often, even turning around.

“I could see the bears were afraid and were clearly anticipating something bad was about to happen to them.”

On closer inspection, it was clear to Jill why these bears were afraid. They had been tormented, and years of confinement in such tiny cages had literally left their mark.

“There were scars running three or four feet in length along their bodies, their teeth were smashed from repeatedly biting the bars in frustration.”

Horrifically, some of the bears even had their teeth pulled out or their paw tips cut off, to make them less dangerous to those milking them.

“Worst of all,” Jill says “metal catheters were poking out from infected holes in their abdomens, from where the bile is milked.”

There was a moment inside the farm during Jill’s visit that she has never forgotten and, she says, is the moment the idea and concept of Animals Asia was formed.

“Suddenly I felt something touch my shoulder; I turned around in shock to see a female moon bear reaching her paw through the cage,” explains Jill.

“At that moment it seemed right to take her mighty paw in mine and rather than hurting me, which I knew she could’ve, she squeezed my fingers and her message was clear.

“While I knew I’d never see her again, that moment saw a promise that bear bile farming would one day end.”

Jill ultimately founded Animals Asia in 1998 and in the years since has opened sanctuaries in Chengdu, China, as well as Vietnam.

To date the team has rescued 611 bears and is currently campaigning to close a bear farm in China that houses 120 bears. Those bears will be moved to a new life in the Chengdu sanctuary.

As a mark of success to Jill and her team, and with the ongoing help of the Vietnamese government, Animals Asia is on track to bring an end to the bear bile industry in the country; which has already seen a reduction of bears kept for bile drop from 4,000 at the industry’s height, to approximately 900 today.

In a show of solidarity, the Vietnamese government invited Jill to join them in a press conference last July where they pledged to rescue all remaining bears and bring an end to the industry by 2022.

This success, and the ability to heal a rescued bears body and mind, is what continues to drive Jill.

“We are able to create a leading example of good management and care for animals who were utterly exploited and treated as machines,” says Jill.

“Our rescued bears see state of the art care at our award-winning sanctuaries in China and Vietnam, and they enjoy the most incredible lives of happiness, peace and choice.”

When asked how she avoids burnout, which commonly affects those working with sick, injured and abused animals, Jill credits the bears themselves.

“It is purely because we can bring them freedom from pain and witness peace and happiness in the bears that we rescue, that ‘doing’ – rather than ‘talking’ – helps me reconcile with the visions I’ve witnessed and avoid psychological distress.”

“Also, throughout these years of rescuing bears, I’ve come to understand just how much the bears have rescued me,” Jill continues

Jill says she’s an eternal optimist and this only increases as she gets older and witnesses the change and difference their work, projects and rescue centres have created.

“Someone said that our sanctuaries are ‘food for the soul’ and there’s absolutely no doubt they are,” says Jill.

“It’s impossible not to remain positive after seeing the progress and compassion in people’s hearts as a result of our years of strategy and success – working from the inside out”.

To read more about Animals Asia campaigns or to learn how you can help end bear bile farming for good, visit

Jill has dedicated her life to helping bears before they are hunting and exploited out of existence. To read more about a list of endangered species and how you can travel ethically to visit elephants in south east Asia, follow these links:

The world’s most endangered creatures

The only way to see elephants in Thailand

/ by Michelle Minehan

Michelle is the founder and editor of Animal Friendly Life