Thanks to dedication and a collective effort, Freedom Moon (2008, Animals Asia Foundation, 128 pages) takes “bear photography” to new heights. Burly “personalities” beam through on nearly every page.
A decade ago, the Hong Kong-based AAF began working to save long-caged and otherwise abused Asiatic black bears, called “moon bears” for the crescents on their chests, from China's bear-bile farms. Since then, 247 bears have retired to a sanctuary in Chengdu, Sichuan Province. Thousands remain on the farms. Recently, the AAF established another sanctuary in Vietnam.
Full of the AAF's best photos, Freedom Moon shows rescued bears, each identified by name – Billabong, Charley, Crystal, Harley, Mandela, Rupert, Delaney and Caesar, for example -- relaxing, napping, bathing, rollicking, even posing like fashion models. The book celebrates 10 years of rescues and carries a dedication to “the thousands who remain imprisoned”.
According to the AAF founder, Jill Robinson, “The contrast between the depleted shells of animals newly arriving from the bile farms and the characters of the bears today could not be more extreme. Initially and understandably, eyes burn with fear and loathing, and mouths open and vocalize aggressively. These are animals unable to distinguish between members of a species now desperately trying to help them, and those from the same species responsible for their suffering on the farms.
“The gradual transition of their characters and personalities is remarkable…. Finally released into dens and enclosures, the bears develop their personalities as profound and individual as any humans.”
Jill gains enjoyment and knowledge from the rescued bears. “It can't be summed up in a single sentence,” she said. “We learn so much about them. They're such an intelligent species, so joyous and charismatic. Their powers of healing and recovery are so immense, both in mind and body. They teach us very well.”
Bear bile, removed on the farms through holes drilled in the tightly caged animals' abdomens, goes into traditional Chinese medicines, “even though cheap and effective herbal and synthetic alternatives are readily available.
“Bear bile contains terrible contaminants – blood, pus, feces and urine. The Chinese government maintains that it didn't realize melamine was in milk, but we've said for the longest time that contaminants are in bile.”
When growing up in Britain, Jill never visualized bears as her life's work. “Not in my wildest dreams,” she said. “But ironically, as a baby, I'd throw dollies out of my pram and take in teddy bears.”
In 1985, she arrived in Hong Kong hoping to work in television. “But I'd always loved animals and supported animal-welfare groups,” she said.
Jill recalls the day in 1993 when she first visited a bear-bile farm. “It was a torture chamber, a hell-hole for animals,” she said. “They literally couldn't move. They couldn't stand up. They couldn't turn around…. Something clicked for me.
“My only regret is that we can't move faster to rescue more victims on farms,” she said. “We've got a long way to go. That's always deeply disturbing, but discouragement and pessimism are destructive emotions. We're a positive, focused team with lots of options to save many more bears.”
For most animal lovers, Freedom Moon stirs mixed emotions. The realities of bear-bile farms horrify anyone who despises deliberate cruelty. But each pictured animal represents a triumph for compassion and kindness too. Positive images should overpower, but never conceal, the negative ones.
“Someday, we'll end bear-bile farming,” Jill said. “People are appalled by it.”
Meanwhile, “this is a book for anyone who loves animals and believes in freedom.”
Approval rating: 79 per cent.
For more information: www.animalsasia.org
(October 28, 2008)