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Great Animal Rescues and Jill Robinson

May 9, 2009 - THe Star

 Great animal rescues


*Asia's animal abusers have finally met their biggest adversary in the form of Jill Robinson.*

There's something indescribably poignant about watching 50-year-old Jill Robinson at work. She knelt on the dirt floor and gave each dog a big hug. She spoke gently to them as she would her own child, a smile stretching across her face.

We were in the middle of a scorching day at the Furry Friends Farm, but Robinson didn't seem to mind. Some of the dogs did, however, and decided to forgo the opportunity of welcoming their honoured guest in order to take a dip in the nearby river. A disabled lad and his new best mate.

Little did they know that she -- just like the owner of Furry Friends Farm, Sabrina Yeap -- played an instrumental role in their lives.

Besides being the founder of animal welfare charity Animals Asia, Robinson is also the pioneer of Doctor Dog, an animal-assisted therapy programme in Asia.

Under the programme, she rescues emaciated canines from the streets and slaughterhouse-bound trucks and grooms them into a sort of national hero.

"We've received a growing endorsement from a number of medical and health professionals. In Hong Kong, there are over 200 dogs currently making regular visits to 60 different organisations, from hospitals to schools. Our waiting list continues to grow," Robinson says on her website.

The programme's impact is most striking in old folks' homes, where residents look forward to the visits with great excitement and greet the dogs like old friends. Jill Robinson connects easily with animals.

"Even though many of the elderly are suffering from the effects of senile dementia, they can still remember the names of the dogs," Robinson said. "We've also had a dying cancer patient request a last visit from Dr Dog. It shows how much these visits have come to mean to the patients."

Incidentally, it was through the programme that Yeap first spoke to Robinson.

"I'm really distressed about the state our stray dogs are in," said Yeap, referring to the most recent case in Pulau Ketam, where about 300 stray dogs were rounded up by the residents and deported to an isolated island to fend for themselves.

Over half of them are already dead, and the residents are shaking their heads in disbelief that outsiders want to save the animals they so casually discarded.

"They are being persecuted daily because we regard them as pests. I read about Dr Dog in 2007 and thought 'What a great idea!' Finally, here's something to help raise the status of our local dogs."

With Robinson's moral backing, Yeap implemented the programme in Malaysia, and appointed a gregarious Labrador, Sugar, as its ambassador.

Yeap's volunteers had discovered a scrawny Sugar wandering the alleyways for scraps of food only a few months before. She belonged to a pet shop nearby, but was left on the streets when it closed down.  She was alone and confused without her pups, all of which have, thankfully, been sold.

"Sugar is very pudgy now. Her size and demeanour make people laugh," said Yeap.

"She's been going on visits once a month for two years now. Once we went to Persatuan Amal Murni and met this mentally handicapped boy who was terrified of dogs. However, when he met Sugar, he made the effort to touch her. It was a sight to behold, seeing the dramatic changes that took place within this little boy.

"Since then, he can't stop talking about his experience. He always looks forward to the day when Sugar comes back," Yeap said.

*Animal instinct*

Robinson is, to put it mildly, one busy woman. Her work schedule is enough to drive any sane person to the opposite end of the spectrum.

Case in point: she was in Kuala Lumpur for just a short day because Indonesia was scheduled for the very next day.

"I lead a nomadic life. I love to travel, but I haven't been away for a proper holiday since December 2003. I never spend more than two weeks in any one place," she said.

Despite her workload, Robinson looked radiant. Though English by birth, she reminded me of a much nicer, less cattier version of Heather Locklear. The only giveaway to her age was the air of serenity and wisdom that hung around her.

"You know, Gandhi once said that the greatness of a nation depends on how the animals are treated," she said.

I nodded my head in agreement, feeling slightly embarrassed for my fellow countrymen. Robinson was clearly in her element at the farm. She displayed a passion and sincerity that only another animal lover like Yeap could match. We spoke about many things, but the conversation soon turned to men and . . . Jeffrey Dahmer, the serial killer.

"Most men think that being compassionate is not a very macho thing, but I find men who love animals very sexy," Robinson declared.

Having just separated from her husband of 20 years (they grew apart because of all the work), she's now happily single and keeps five dogs and seven cats for company. It's important, she said, to educate our children to love animals for the sake of their own future, if not for the animals themselves.

"When he was a kid, Dahmer used to impale the heads of dogs and cats on sticks. He even skinned and gutted some of the animals and nailed their bodies to the tree in his backyard," she pointed out.  "Statistics don't lie. It shows that violent and aggressive criminals are more likely to have abused animals as children. Apparently, they may be on a dangerous path that will only get worse if not corrected."

Robinson feels a strong affection towards all animals ("for as long as I can remember," she said), but her ground-breaking work with Animals Asia and Dr Dog actually began with the rescue of Asiatic moon bears in China.

*Caging the crescents *

Perhaps what's most surprising was how it all happened out of the blue. Robinson had simply accompanied a Japanese tour group to a bear farm after being told about it by a journalist friend. The farm was there to extract the bile of the bears to be used in traditional Chinese medicine.

"While the tour group were being briefed about the benefits of bear bile by the bile farmer and his wife, I stole away from the group," she was quoted in an interview.

"I found some steps leading down into the basement and I found myself in a very dark room. And, really, I could hardly make out too much except that there were many cages there. I wasn't quite sure what I was looking at but what I did hear were these sort of popping vocalisations. Just popping, pop,
pop, pop."

Little did she realize that she had walked into what she described as "total hell on earth".

"The conditions were horrific. Thirty-two of these majestic beasts were packed into cages a few sizes too small. Most of them were a bloody mess from being stuck behind grilles for years on end, without ever getting the privilege to ever see the light of day.

"There was pulp and nerves where their canine teeth once were, and holes and tumours the size of a football in their abdomens. They were also clawless, the result of having had their end digits cut off by farmers so that the claws would never grow back again.

"And this popping vocalization, it's a nervous sound when a bear is either deeply unhappy or deeply stressed. The bear was really, I think, believing that I was there to take its bile."

But as she got closer, magic happened. A bear rested his great big paw on her shoulder, as if trying to communicate with her.

"I did something I shouldn't have," she told me. "I returned his touch. But lucky for me, he was a gentle one. We held each other's hands. It was then I knew this was something I wanted to fight for."

Robinson looked momentarily distressed. She never saw the bear again, but it was evident that the image of him never left her because she continues her crusade against this borderless crime.

She now fondly remembers him as "the bear that started it all".

Animals Asia has gone on to successfully shut down 40 farms by working closely with the Chinese government. Her work, however, does not end there. There are still 7,000 bears living this way in China, and another 4,000 in Vietnam. She doesn't plan to return home to Nottingham, ever.

"I think my life is mapped out to stay in Asia, probably China, on site with the bears at our sanctuary in Chengdu," she said.

Unfortunately, like all other charitable organisations dependent on public funding, Animals Asia is feeling the grim force of these turbulent economic

"We're down by 10% in funds, and we expect this figure to slip to 40%. The economy is not going to let up anytime soon," she said.

With such heavy factors weighing her down, how does she cope?

"I'm a great believer in crying," she replied, surprisingly. "I go home after the end of a long, hard day and have a good cry."

*For more information on Furry Friends Farm or Animals Asia, visit  or *

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