How Jill Robinson is Changing Animal Welfare in Asia

In this interview, Jill Robinson discusses her transition from consulting to founding Animals Asia after a life-changing visit to a bear bile farm in China. She talks about the early challenges of leading a charity as a Western woman in Asia and how these experiences shaped the inclusive and progressive ethos of Animals Asia. 

Jill also touches on maintaining mental resilience amidst the tough realities of animal welfare, the organisation’s efforts to foster female leadership, and her advice for women looking to make their mark in the charity world.

Jill, transitioning from a consultant to founding Animals Asia is a remarkable shift. Can you tell us about a pivotal experience or moment that inspired you to decisively combat bear bile farming?

Yes sometimes one can never really make sense of why things happen as they do. The moment was life changing, as if I was meant to be in a certain place at a certain time – the place was a bear bile farm in China and the time was in April 1993.

I was carrying out a covert investigation with two of my friends, after a journalist had called me and said there was something I should see. I was working as a Consultant for the International Fund for Animal Welfare at the time – based in Hong Kong where I lived, and going undercover to the live animal markets in China, South Korea and the Philippines. 

We arrived at the bear farm and joined tourists from Japan and Taiwan, where the farmer and his wife were trying to convince us all to buy freshly extracted bile from bears he was holding captive in his basement below.

We snuck away from the group, went downstairs and walked into a dark and stinking room with 32 caged and frightened Asiatic black bears (or moon bears because of the yellow crescent of fur on their chest) each looking forlornly at us from out of the bars.As I walked around in shock I must have backed too closely to a cage and felt something touch my shoulder.

Turning in fright, I came face to face with a female moon bear who was holding out her paw as if inviting me to take it.Stupidly I did and, rather than hurting me as she could so easily have done, she gently squeezed my hand – her claws resting on my fingers, and her eyes making a silent plea for help.

That moment has never left me – and it was only years later as we all learned more about this remarkable, intelligent, forgiving but unpredictable species, that I realised the true extent of what had just happened. Because that one touch and that one long look, changed my life forever. I never saw her again, but named her Hong (“bear” in Cantonese) – and that one lost soul began the dream of the China bear rescue that was then to see the rescue of nearly 700 bears in China and Vietnam, and the start of an organisation that would change tradition and inspire the previously little thought of topic of animal welfare. 

Animals Asia was founded in 1998, and our pioneering projects are ending bear bile extraction, ending the suffering of wild animals in captivity and ensuring the humane treatment of dogs and cats in Asia. 

As a female leader pioneering in the field of animal welfare, what unique challenges have you faced, and how have you overcome them? Moreover, how do you believe your experience as a woman has shaped the direction and ethos of Animals Asia?

The early days were interesting. Especially for a Western woman with a small stature and a quiet voice working in rather unfamiliar and male dominated circumstances. In many ways, perhaps that’s why some things began to quickly slot into place – as I was perceived as no threat.

Soon joined by amazing team members and working with government officials, we gained permission to build first one bear sanctuary in China, and then another in Vietnam and joined the authorities in closing down illegal farms and rescuing both sun and moon bears.

The more bears we rescued the more we learned about them and the industry that had caused them so much suffering. They were literally broken – physically and psychologically – but here we now had the evidence of why bear bile farming was not only cruel and obsolete, and also the building blocks to allow us to work holistically on issues such as traditional medicine and public education to help bring it to an end. 

To be honest, I’ve never really thought of how my position as a woman has shaped the direction and ethos of Animals Asia- but I have always believed in equality and this has led to an open mind in considering and shaping our values and policies. 

For example, one of the Sustainable Development Goals set by the UN on the 2030 global agenda is to achieve gender equality through gender equity and women’s empowerment.In Vietnam and across Animals Asia we offer equal opportunities for both women and men to advance into leadership roles, address gender inequality across the board and provide both women and men with different support systems.

Our in-house workshops with staff in Vietnam on “what is a man’s job and what is a woman’s job” lead to the creation of new recruitment policies that allow women to cross over into roles that would have historically seen only men, and vice versa. For example, our horticulture and kitchen nutrition teams that are now composed of both male and female staff.

Leading an organisation like Animals Asia must require immense mental resilience. Could you share some insights on how you maintain your mental toughness and stay motivated in the face of challenging and often distressing situations?

Animals Asia went through a strategic planning process in 2007 and, apart from the joy of rescuing and helping animals, this was one of the best things we’ve done to date. It taught me a lot about honesty and integrity in leadership, and about the value of turning towards uncomfortable truths in order to evolve as an organisation.

Seeing leaders own their mistakes inspires and empowers all our people. We’ve created the most inspirational and safe organisation together – no-one is more important than another because it takes every single person to raise us to succeed and we can all be comfortable knowing that we are doing as much as we can to help as many animals as we can through our work, collaboratively, together.

Our three bear sanctuaries and elephant sanctuary are the heart and soul of rescue, but couldn’t function without the professional hands of fundraising, comms, finance, legal, HR, IT etc supporting them. And I think this is what keeps me strong and motivated as so many of our bases are covered by our most adept and competent colleagues.

Of course the sights we see just rip your heart out sometimes – there’s a bear we’ve recently rescued call Ha Long who was so skeletal and wasted she couldn’t even stand up to eat.For weeks she crawled over to the spoon that was offered in her quarantine cage to eat food she had never known existed before.

Today, while still not out of the woods – she’s stronger, she’s standing, she’s guzzling her meals and treats down like a bear possessed. She’s taking interest in her surroundings, curiously checking out her bear neighbours in adjacent quarantine cages, as if to say “yeah, she looks alright”. Bears like Ha Long keep us all mentally tough and consistently optimistic that our work is making the most impactful progress and difference.

In the context of gender equity within animal welfare, how is Animals Asia fostering and supporting female leadership? Could you highlight some stories of how female champions within your organisation are making significant strides?

 Most of our leaders atAnimals Asia are female, but I am thrilled to especially credit our Bear Team Manager, Amy Saunders, who has led outstanding staff workshops in Vietnam – a country that was ranked 87th out of 156 countries on the Global Gender Gap Index.

Women are still considered by Vietnamese men and women as the primary family caregivers – an explanation perhaps as to why Vietnamese women have significantly lower levels of education compared to Vietnamese men, and are less likely to be promoted to higher positions compared to Vietnamese men.

Amy has conducted Women’s Leadership Programs at our sanctuary in Tam Dao National Park, near Hanoi, to develop leadership skills and teach women different aspects of leadership including styles, strengths and challenges, and also dealing with conflict, critical thinking and problem-solving.

As Amy says, the Women’s Leadership Program isn’t implemented to disadvantage men, but to recognise that to facilitate gender equality in a workplace we need to actively address gender inequity issues and provide woman and men with different support systems to level out what is currently an uneven playing field.

For this, and our support of EDI organisation wide, we were proud to receive The Ellect Gold Star here in Australia from their Founder, Sandra d’Souza for helping to achieve Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in Business.

You’ve been a trailblazer for women in the charity space. What advice would you give to women aspiring to leadership roles in charities, especially in sectors traditionally dominated by men?

Again, being a trailblazer hasn’t been on my radar, but leading with passion and integrity has. I’ve been so lucky to have found my purpose at a relatively young age and then to have found people who believed in this path.

One of my proudest roles has been as a mentor to students at Hong Kong University – and one of those students was a shy young dental student called Shirley.I remember her to this day as she hesitatingly talked about loving her dental course, but loving animals too, and was thinking of branching out and studying veterinary science on top of her dental degree.

Of course I encouraged this journey 100% and, today, Shirley teaches at City University in Hong Kong and is the first qualified veterinary dentist from China and Hong Kong certified by the American Board of Veterinary Dentistry) and now registered in Hong Kong.We’re also thrilled to have invited Shirley to help teach university students in China In our Veterinary Welfare Training Program.

So I would give the same advice that I was given by my friend and Mentor, Virginia McKenna, who founded the organisation Born Free together with her late husband Bill Travers in 1984. Before then, Virginia and Bill had also starred in the film Born Free in the 1960’s about Elsa, a lioness who was hand raised and then set free in the bush of Africa. When I asked Virginia about my path in my 30’s and said I was thinking of starting an organisation to help caged and cruelly extracted “bile bears” she said, “just do it”. And I did.

I’ve known many fine women charity leaders and without exception all have made their charities a success. There’s something about that fire in the belly that can’t be extinguished -in our case, until there is no bear left behind on a farm, or breaking the cages for animals held captive. If you recognise that fire in yourself, then you are halfway there already.

With your extensive experience, what are your thoughts on the current state of species loss and habitat destruction? What are some effective strategies or actions individuals and communities can take to help prevent this?

Our world will be so badly destroyed at so many levels unless we do things differently now.SARS, Bird Flu, Ebola, MERS and of course COVID – and multiple other diseases have been caused because of our unkindness towards animals.

Collectively, individually, we must consider just one sentence: “what can I do to be kind?”. The answers will emerge from that. Being kind means looking at our individual habits, how we deal with our household waste, what food we eat, what entertains us, how we travel, the clothes we wear, the products we use on our bodies.

As human beings we are parts not only of the community of humanity but of the community which makes up nature as a whole. Everything is interconnected. but our demands on this planet are causing it to collapse, leaving nothing for other species.Animals Asia is developing our own strategy to reduce our contributions to the emerging Triple Planetary Crisis of climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution.

Our canteens on site for hundreds of staff have been vegan for years – amazing Chinese and Vietnamese plant based food.We have plastic saving programs, lectures to staff of “One Life” and understanding the species with whom we share this earth – their propensity for suffering, like us, their emotional intelligence, like us, their wish to survive and experience joy with their family, like us.

Please join and support organisations like Animals Asia to find out how you can help these issues directly. For example, ending bear bile farming in Vietnam is not “just” a welfare issue.It is also tackling the illegal wildlife trade and conserving the magnificent species of endangered moon and sun bears in the wild.

We must help them together – for their sake, for our children to enjoy, and for the benefit of the planet. Why?Bears are a keystone species – they till the land, disperse fruit seeds, and fertilise the forest. Bears are an umbrella species- they keep other species healthy in the ecosystem by hunting the weak and sick and, as scavengers, they keep forests cleaner and free from disease. Bears are an indicator species – healthy bears tell us that fish are plentiful and the forest is healthy. So help us to protect them, to protect us!

Looking at the bigger picture, how do you envision the future of animal welfare in Asia? What are some key changes or developments you hope to see in the coming years, both in terms of policy and public awareness?

I look at the future of animal welfare in Asia with great optimism.When I first began working here there was one animal protection organisation in China and now there are over 600 groups countrywide.

Similarly in Vietnam – and all across the Asia continent; student groups hungry for knowledge, veterinary students learning about animal welfare and pain management where this sort of education scarcely existed before, communities rising up against cruel treatment and demanding change. 

Bear bile farming in Vietnam is now illegal, dogs (and by default cats) have been removed from the Livestock List of China, making it illegal to sell these animals for food. Two of our founding goals have been realised, we’re super proud to say.True, these practices aren’t going to end overnight because there is much to deal with in relation to social disharmony and the authorities are cautious in going too fast – but equally, they need solutions too.

And here Animals Asia provides them by now building our second sanctuary in Vietnam to help the government confiscate and rescue the last remaining 250 bears on farms by the year 2026. In China our programs to bring the public closer to our very best friends – Dr Dog and Professor Paws that sees dogs going into hospitals and disabled centres and schools to show how these canine consultants can be the best therapists and teachers in the world (how many times have you cried into the chest of your dog and felt better afterwards?). That’s animal therapy!

We work with the authorities on vaccination and rabies prevention programs – that help to keep streets and people free from disease and prove that the dog meat trade is a horrible vector for the transmission of such disease and should end.

The conferences we hold with local groups and provincial governments provide a bridge of learning to bring these two sectors of community together – discussing and solving problems of stray animal control, responsible pet management, ending the illegal dog meat trade etc.

Helping in capacity training for shelters across the country to improve their management skills and bring public education to the fore. Trap Neuter Return of feral cats in the community – again providing a harmonious society for people and animals to co-exist. And all the while, dog and cat meat restaurants are closing down or ending their sale of such meat as regulations are enacted and consumers vote with their feet.

At the end of the day we must all recognise our propensity to do harm and do everything we can to live our lives with purpose, tread with gentle footprints on this earth, and be kind.

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Hey there! I'm Hao, the Editor-in-Chief at Balance the Grind. We’re on a mission to showcase healthy work-life balance through interesting stories from people all over the world, in different careers and lifestyles.