Author’s Note: I recently had the honor of interviewing not one, but two incredible humans: Animals Asia Founder & MBE Jill Robinson (JR below) and Animals Asia UK-US Ambassador Lesley Nicol (LN below). It is one of the (if not THE) most heartfelt and poignant interviews I have conducted. It is impossible to leave these two women and not care about the cause they are fighting for. Below is a faithful transcription (edited and condensed for clarity) of our interview. What follows is an incredibly inspiring and frank discussion about animal welfare, the plight of moonbears, the dog meat trade in China, the road to veganism, the reality of industrial meat farming, the dairy controversy and the role of social media in China’s animal culture change. While it’s definitely the longest piece (by a lot) that we have ever published on Green Queen, I do hope you will read until the end. I can promise you this: you won’t regret it. Time spent with these two passionate souls is worth 100 hours of whatever else you are doing.
Warning: this article may change your life.
SF: Lesley, how did you become an Animals Asia Ambassador?
LN: I was in a show called Downtown Abbey and I had a friend in the cast called Peter Egan who is an actor in the UK, and he was already an Ambassador for Animals Asia. I had never heard of it. I started watching his stuff on Twitter, links to Jill and the website, and moonbears. I had never heard of moonbears. It very quickly took to my heart and I don’t know why that should be. I do love animals and why was it a moonbear and not an elephant or a tiger?
The moonbear story, the whole business of incarcerating an animal in such a wicked way…the bear bile farm.. it’s so disgusting, it’s so awful. Hearing Jill’s story, hearing her talk about the first time she met a moonbear, it just touched me so deeply.
It’s funny because I remember watching a rather happy moonbear video and weeping my eyes and my husband said: what’s the matter with you, that’s a happy video! And I now realize that something was going on- I feel I am supposed to be involved in this.
Then I found out that 160 million people in China apparently watch Downtown Abbey so I said: I think there’s some kind of awareness of who I am in China, so can I be of any use?
I then flew out to Chengdu, and then once you’re there, once you’ve met a moonbear, there’s no leaving that story…
SF: And that’s Jill’s story too…it’s how you started Animals Asia?
JR: Exactly. Totally because of meeting a moonbear. And Lesley got involved because of a moonbear. They are extraordinary [creatures]. They’re so forgiving aren’t they…
LN: That’s the thing you see in the sanctuary that blows your mind. These animals have only known hideous pain and abuse. All they’ve known from humans is wicked, wicked cruelty. And then, you’re feeding one, and they’ve actually got it. Not all of them, but a lot of them, go: I’m ok now. I know I’m ok because people here won’t do that to me. That’s something a human would be incapable of, I think. I don’t know if anyone could forgive, move on to the extent that they go: ok, I trust you now. I found it deeply moving. The sanctuary is such an amazing place to go to.
SF: Why this cause when there are so many others to care about?
LN: I don’t know, but I just know it’s real and it’s a strong connection and I guess it’s good that not everybody’s wanting to do the same thing. I heard a lovely story where our American ambassador Matt Sorum, who is a rock star (of Guns n Roses fame), said to Ringo Starr: can you help us with the moonbears? And he said: nah man, I’m rhinos!
SF: Do a lot of your ambassadors come to you in the same way that this happened with Lesley?
JR: That’s a really interesting question. We’ve approached Asian stars like Karen Mok. But actually even that- I was speaking at a conference many years ago and her mother came up to me and said: I’m not sure if you know who Karen Mok is (and of course I didn’t, being a typical Hong Kong expat) and she said Karen is interested in working with your foundation and I realized she was actually vetting me. We got on extremely well and then Karen came onboard. We’ve been really lucky and I have to say I was really quite choosy. Our celebrities not only have to be in the celebrity field but they also have to be ethical and have integrity as far as animal welfare and conservation and of course the lifestyle they live. So if someone wants to work with us and they loved shark’s fin soup for example, or wore snakeskin boots, that wouldn’t be acceptable. We are not expecting people to be vegan by any means, but what we found is that our celebrities do start taking a different journey.
LN: Jill took me a farm sanctuary in Los Angeles. They have quite a lot of them in the US where they rescue farm animals. So you go there and you meet the animals and they discuss what would have happened to the animals if they hadn’t been rescued and it’s horrific. And obviously, not just meat, but the dairy industry, which is equally hideous. I came away [from the visit] on the road [towards veganism]. I certainly haven’t eaten meat since I left that farm and am pretty much non-dairy. Just working my way to being fully vegan. Jill never said to me: well why don’t you be vegan? Because Jill is fully vegan. You have got to let people find their own way. But encouraging people to go to an animal sanctuary- a lot of people will not walk away from that able to eat Sophie The Pig. I met Sophie The Pig. I’m sitting on the floor with Sophie The Pig thinking I can’t eat pork. I can’t do it. That’s ridiculous.
SF: I find that getting a dog, just living with an animal, made me ask questions.
LN: That’s very progressive of you because a lot of people do not make that connection. The other thing I did was read a book: Why Do We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs and Wear Cows?. And I thought: that’s a very interesting question. Why are we treating our dogs and loving them like they are family and then we abuse the rest of them like they don’t matter. It’s a very good question.
SF: It is. I don’t have any easy answers. So did the book have powerful arguments?
LN: It was awful. It was disgusting. The reality of the farming industry and the dairy industry… The fact that they take these calves away from their mothers within hours [of their birth] and the mothers are howling in distress. And this is so we can have their milk. Whosever made that connection? I’ve never made that connection and I’ve been drinking milk my whole life. It comes in a bottle and you don’t think of the cow. We impregnate the cow relentlessly ’til it dies.
SF: What do we say about people that are approaching the eating of animals in a more ethical way?
JR: The cows have to have a baby to produce our milk.
LN: So the only way they can produce the milk is by being pregnant. And what will happen I find, is that people will say: oh, I only have free range. Well in the US by the way, free range means in the huge thing with thousands of chickens and only a tiny door. If the people really knew… Paul McCartney said: if slaughterhouse walls were made of glass, everyone would be vegetarian.
JR: There are farmers now that have actually moved out of the industry. There’s a guy called Bob Comis [a former pig farmer and the man behind the documentary The Last Pig] and he has just walked away from the farming industry. He’s an ex-farmer and he cannot justify what he used to do any longer. It’s the most compelling stuff. It’s just remarkable. It’s spilling the beans on the intensive farming industry. You can’t walk away. You can’t un-know something.
SF: What about the people in China who are seeing dogs being killed. Aren’t they are watching it with their eyes the way we are watching a documentary?
JR: Not so much anymore. There is such a big movement now in China in terms of turning away from dog slaughter. So in the markets now, they are bringing the carcasses [to disconnect it from furry, cute pets]. What we know in China is that there are about 10 millions dogs that are consumed every year by a very small amount of people. And it’s only because China has such a large population that it’s even that number.
We’re finding out from our surveys that people who eat dog generally don’t eat it more than once or twice a year anyway and the younger generation are turning away from it too. So there’s a very big shift happening every year in terms of animal welfare. There are 150 animal welfare groups [in China] now. There was one when I started in the 1980s.
Our investigations have shown that the dogs are stolen. Just outside our dog sanctuary, we’ve had about 15 to 20 dogs stolen and we’ve caught it on camera. This is a disgusting, illegal black industry.
SF: So the average Chinese person doesn’t want this?
JR: Exactly what we’re finding more and more. Local groups, when they see trapped dogs, they intervene. They get the media and the lawyers. And they educate the media about the law. It’s not just a bunch of activists. They know the licenses that are required. So they will challenge the drivers. And they call the police. We’ve closed down 125 dog restaurants or prevented them from selling dog meat in the last year in China. We’ve challenged those restaurant owners: where are the licenses? And the police have to close them down.
SF: Even if they don’t care about the dog meat…
JR: They [the restaurants] have to have the licenses to sell dog meat.
SF: Who are these people who want to eat dog?
JR: It’s the older generation. It just depends the culture you grow up in. But we do find as well with programs like Dr Dog going into hospitals and Professor Paws going into schools that people suddenly start making a connection. If you can show that dogs are our very best friends, that they have a functional place in society and that they help people physically and psychologically, that they can offer physical and psychological help, then I think it’s on us to start looking at other animals in the intensive farming industry because those animals are of equal intelligence as dogs. So I think the onus is on us to say: of course I wouldn’t eat a dog. But then why would I eat a pig or a chicken or a cow?
SF: Do you think that everyone is capable of making that connection?
JR: I do, I really do. I think as Lesley said, it’s just about being informed. My partner for example: he was a carnivore, he was a fishermen. He said: why did you become a vegan? I said: Oh, lots of reasons but maybe you should see Earthlings. It’s an amazing film about intensive farming, about animals in the food industry, the medicine industry, the entertainment industry, every way that animals are used, really. It’s narrated by Joaquin Phoenix. It’s incredible. He forced himself to watch this 1.5 hour video and it’s hard [to do so]. And at the end he said: I am so guilty, I had no idea. He’s been vegan ever since. I checked him out on Facebook in the early days of our relationship and I saw a picture of lamb shanks on his page and thought: Oh, this is going to be a little bit tricky. And then five days later…
SF: That human thing we call the conscience.
LN: It’s just about educating. I’ve been chomping away at meat for 60 years. I used to look at vegetarians and think: Oh bless them, that’s really nice but I wouldn’t like to do that. But once you make the connection, the emotional connection, it’s a done deal really.
JR: Sometimes the public just wants to believe, when we talk about humane meat and various stunts by welfare groups that say that these animals are raised humanely. My biggest problem is when you find all these exposes that go into these very same slaughterhouses that say that they are sanctioned by animal welfare groups and suddenly, all this stuff is going on behind closed doors and it outrages the public time and time again, and I just think at the end of the day, we should be giving animals the benefit of the doubt! Because how can you trust that level of intensive farming, whether it’s a humane slaughterhouse or one that’s run just as a conveyor-belt system unless you’re there, unless there are inspectors there and cameras there. To the public, why aren’t cameras there?
SF: I think the French have just put in regulation to have cameras in slaughterhouses. If you’re going to do it, be transparent and show the world.
JR: And then the customer can make an informed choice and decide if they want to eat from that facility if they think that’s humane.
SF: Everyone’s at a different point in their journey but at least you can see with your own eyes.
JR: I think the journey is really important. I don’t think we should be laying it on people so they feel guilty and disturbed about themselves. For their own health, people are beginning to go [veggie] one day a week. That should be applauded, small steps in this journey. That act alone, if everybody did it, would save billions of animals every year.
SG: People have their identities caught up in this, what their nationality is, what their regional culture is…
JR: We say that culture shouldn’t be an excuse for cruelty. Those days are gone. We learn, we evolve, we become mature in our decisions and more insightful with the reality of what actually goes into this stuff. There is so much terror in the world and I just think we should be evolving to a more compassionate species.
SG: Have you always been a vegan?
JR: No I’m ashamed. I’ve been a veggie for 25 years and this is my fourth year as a vegan and I wish I’d done it years before because you just feel better inside and out. You just do. I was stupid. I was a veggie but the dairy industry is hideous and I feel so damn guilty for what I was responsible for, consuming cheese and milk and things.
SF: One thing I’ve learned doing Green Queen and doing interviews and meeting incredible human beings such as yourselves is the power that inspiration can have. People can leave a talk that you give and go: I’m changing my life. That’s incredible power.
LN: And I can say it but she can’t: that happens to her all the time. I’ve met people who say: I met Jill Robinson when I was 12 and it absolutely dictated the path of my life because I was so inspired by her. We were talking to a group on youngsters today at a school and I thought, if even one of these in this room becomes a leader of some kind, this could make a huge difference.
SF: So how do you keep up the passion to keep fighting? Are there ever days when you go: I can’t believe this is still happening in China or Vietnam?
JR: Of course. We all do. We all wake up some days and go: I can’t get out of bed today. But you know, this is an incredibly inspiring movement. In China and Vietnam now, there is such a push for animal welfare and conservation and it makes it a privilege [to be part of it]. I feel old now. I was out in the wilderness when I was younger but now I feel my job is…not done, but getting there. There are so many passionate people out there.
SF: And when you started, you had no Facebook, no social media. Do you think that has helped propel the movement?
JR: Undoubtedly, especially in China. Now when they see a [caged dog] truck, they’re all on the Weibo chat and it’s just going viral, and they are saying: we’ve got a truck of dogs, the’ve all got collars on them. Have you lost your dog recently? And suddenly people are claiming their dog that has just been taken from their yards.
LN: I only do Twitter. And people are snooty with me about Twitter and say: Oh god, you do Twitter. And I say: yes I do! It’s the most effective, amazing way of spreading a story that’s not always been that well known. Now people say to me: are you that bear lady? And I say: one of them, yes! Because if you think about it: if you retweet something, it’s going across the world.
SF: Social media accelerates things, there’s no doubt. And also visually: you can see more.
LN: It’s amazing! You get videos all the time for Animals Asia. One of the most fascinating things is when they are doing a rescue. They’ve done a lot of rescues in Vietnam recently. And in real time, you follow the rescue. You get videos, the vet’s updates, the whole timeline, and it’s the best read!
JR: I have to cut in and say, just look at her passion! I say this unreservedly: I love the pants off her because she is the most special woman. She sobs her way through the sanctuary among happy bears bouncing around. But when she comes out into the field with us to a bear farm that we’re just taking over and she is the on the floor, M*ASH style I call it, with our guys doing major abdominal surgery and dental work…and Lesley is there fanning the team in 40 degree heat. Just to see this world-famous, much-loved Mrs Patmore fanning our vet nurses…I just lost it.
LN: Thank you! But you know what? Look what it gives you back! If I hadn’t been in a show that became known around the world, I would never have known about this and couldn’t have been of any help. And this has been, and continues to be, an extraordinary experience! So it’s a two way street. It’s not like I’m sacrificing anything…
JR: But you didn’t have to reach out. You didn’t have to contact me and say: what can I do? How can I be useful?
Get involved with Animals Asia: host a fundraiser, sponsor a moonbear or donate online.
All images courtesy of Animals Asia.