The Power of One Human, the Power of One Bear: A Conversation with Jill Robinson

Jill Robinson sitting near a rescued Asiatic Black Bear in an enclosure

Speaking with Jill Robinson of the Animals Asia Foundation makes me want to sell everything I own, give her all my money, and live naked in a hut eating beans so she can continue with her work.  She is a beacon of hope and inspiration for what humans can be, and can do. This is the story of the incredible power of one bear, reaching out and asking for help; and a human who heard and responded to the call.

The Touch of a Bear

Reflection by Susan Eirich, PhD

Jill Robinson’s story begins in 1993 when she was visiting a basement bear bile farm in southern China with two friends in which the farmer kept moon-bears for their entire life in “crush cages,” so their bile could be extracted for use in traditional Chinese medicine. The practice still exists in China*. Surrounded by bears in horrible conditions, Jill suddenly felt a gentle touch on her shoulder. She turned around. A female bear had reached out to touch her. Jill said it felt like a bolt of lightning. She turned around and spontaneously took the bear’s paw. The bear gently squeezed her hand, several times, looking into her eyes, blinking slowly.

That encounter changed her life forever. A single white woman, a British citizen living in China, she and the Animals Asia team have now rescued over 600 bears, giving them the best in veterinary care after spending decades or lifetimes in a crush cages unable to move. Animals Asia has built award-winning sanctuaries for them where they can finally move, play, smell the earth, feel the sun, splash in water. Founded in 1998, Animals Asia now has 300 staff and has expanded their operations into Vietnam. There Animals Asia and the Vietnamese government have now signed a Memorandum of Understanding that will end all bear bile farming in that country by 2020. She and the team have done all this with caring and compassion; working with the culture of the country, making no judgments. They are changing attitudes towards the business of bear bile farming; bringing out the innate kindness of many of the people once they see what is happening.

In this podcast with Jill, she talks about her work in terms that cannot but move you deeply. It will fill you with gratitude; joy; sadness; the beauty of what she has accomplished. She speaks about the rescue of “Oliver,” who spent 30 years in a crush cage. When she rescued him there was no light in his eyes, only a darkness. He was near death. As they worked to heal him, unsure if he would live, the light began to return. He spent the last four years of his life gently enjoying the sun, water, freedom and kindness, adored by the humans who cared for him. There is a video of him on the Animals Asia YouTube page

There are so many, powerful, threads in this story. The power of one person to affect change. That fact that the change was done with humility and humanity for all involved, including the people. The incredible power of one bear, reaching out and asking for help. A human who heard; who listened, and responded to the call. The sweetness and the forgiveness of the bears, after all they had suffered at human hands. This last, is a profound observation.

Jill named the bear Hong. She wanted her to have a name. She has a tattoo on her shoulder where Hong touched her.

Through what level of reality do we understand this encounter? Was Hong really reaching out for help? Was Jill transported into another level of reality where somehow Hong was asking for help for herself and all bears, feeling the suffering of the bears around her and unable to alleviate it? We do know that wild animals come to humans for help. But it was humans who were doing the harm here. What did Hong sense in Jill? She had never even met a bear before.

Somehow Hong and Jill were connected through another level of reality; another type of communication. One that defies our regular way of seeing things, as complete. Or even adequate. A communication-connection so powerful that it has been resonating in Jill for twenty-five years, impelling her forward with unabated effort.  A communication from another level of reality creating a real difference, through its own channels, in the “real” world. Not because a human saw suffering and tried to help, which also happens. But because this call for help was initiated by a bear.

I don’t think we should allow ourselves to let encounters like these be just a wonderful heartwarming story to be enjoyed and then set aside. I think it is a great mistake and loss if we don’t go to the deeper levels of meaning. It is a glimpse into another way the world works that is not taught. It is actually downplayed or ridiculed, but it is one of great and comforting wonder, healing and beauty. A world where we are sustained and nourished by something well beyond technology, or other humans, or our remarkable civilizations. A world larger than ourselves, full of wondrous things.

In that basement, Jill had a premonition she would never see Hong again. The premonition proved true. Though she tried to find her, Hong and the other bears had been moved. No one knew where, and in fact, Jill never did see her again. She lives with the thought that Hong might still be alive somewhere, suffering, not knowing someone at least tried to help; that someone saw and responded to her gentle but hopeful request.

But 600 bears and counting have been rescued. In China attitudes are changing, and in Vietnam soon the practice will be ended.

Hong reached out to touch Jill, and through the impact on Jill, which emanates out, touched me. My hope is that through this writing she will touch you; invite you to tune more to connections that may have been made in your life. Connections to which you didn’t give much heed, distracted as we are from what is really important by the pressure and fears of everyday life. May ripples of her eloquent request continue out into the world, relieving suffering, enriching our connections with the world around us, enriching us all.  

*For those of you who want to know more about what bear bile farming is, here is a video by Animals Asia. It is informative, but difficult.

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