Monday, 30 November -0001

Don’t walk on by…

Angela Humphery has been fundraising for animal welfare for more than 70 years and has no intention of giving up now

Written by Angela Humphery
Mahatma Gandhi once said, ‘The morality of a country is judged by the way it treats its animals.’ Animal welfare or, you could say, animal cruelty, is a can of worms.

Worldwide, animals are exploited daily. They are hunted, shot, trapped, snared, skinned alive or caged in zoos and circuses, incarcerated in laboratories and factory farms, while the long-haul transport and ritual slaughter of food animals accounts for the suffering of millions more.

I held my first animal welfare fundraising party when I was nine years old in my parents’ garden and I’ve been doing my bit ever since. Back in the 1930s, my devotion to animals had been fuelled by reading Black Beauty under the bedcovers by torchlight – I cried myself to sleep when Ginger collapsed and died of exhaustion between the shafts of his cart. I’ve been crying for, and crying out for, animals ever since. I suppose I would describe myself as an ‘animal welfare activist’ but am often quoted as an ‘animal rights campaigner’, which I definitely am not.

I don’t raid laboratories, releasing animals into the wild to destroy our native species, neither do I wear fatigues or Doc Martens. And I certainly do not wear face furniture.

My husband Martin is equally devoted to raising awareness and much of our marriage has been spent trying to help where we can. For our 50th wedding anniversary for instance, we decided to go to China to see if we could help Jill Robinson and her work with the moon bears.

Our visit was in part due to one of the fund-raising lunches Martin and I hold each summer – since my hip operation I have changed it to teas and for anybody considering doing something similar, teas are much less of a hassle than lunches. You start later and, even better, can persuade friends to bake delicious cakes.

Our first-ever lunch was in aid of the Born Free Foundation to which its founder, the lovely actress Virginia McKenna, came, joining our guests to tell them what the charity was trying to do – its mission statement being ‘Keep Wildlife in the Wild’.

Later that summer we had another lunch, this time for Animals Asia, which was highlighting the plight of moon bears in China. To me this is about as cruel as it gets, with the bears unable to move as well as having metal catheters inserted into their gall bladders for bile extraction, suffering this painful imprisonment until they die.

Its founder, little Brit Jill Robinson, had always admired Virginia McKenna, who had starred in Born Free, and it was Virginia who helped Jill to set up her charity. After the lunch, we determined (despite being in our 70s) to go and visit Jill and see the work she’d been doing for ourselves. So, in April 2003, on the eve of our 50th wedding anniversary, we flew into Chengdu.

Jill took us around the sanctuary, our first stop being to take pictures of the huge stack of rusty iron cages in which these magnificent beasts had been incarcerated for up to 30 years – 30 years without being able to move. They were quite unable to escape and no anaesthetic was used when they were milked for their bile every single day of their painful lives.

Man’s inhumanity to man is hard enough to comprehend but man’s inhumanity to animals knows no bounds. We watched Jill put Rupert, a blind bear, to bed, closing the door between his night and day quarters. She then gave us some blue plastic overshoes, so as not to spread infection, and invited us into Rupert’s little garden paradise. Because of his disability he had his own private quarters and this is where we sat and drank the bottle of bubbly to celebrate our anniversary while Jill explained how she had first decided to devote herself to saving these beautiful creatures.

She and her husband were visiting China when they decided to visit a bear farm. Says Jill, ‘One female bear stretched out her paw in a gesture of help and from then on, I knew there was no way of going back to an ordinary life. This animal was one of some 10,000 Asiatic black bears, often known as moon bears after the yellow crescent of fur on their chests, which were kept for their bile.

‘Surgically mutilated and with a catalogue of injuries and wounds that would fill a hall of shame, these bears were caged for decades so that their body fluid can be used in Chinese traditional medicine. This is despite the fact that cheap and readily available herbs and synthetic bile had existed for many years.

‘I gave the bear which had stretched out her paw the name of Hong, let her gently squeeze my fingers and promised myself her suffering would never be in vain and that she would represent a species that somehow, one day, could be saved from their tortured lives on the farms. Today, while I am sure that the actual Hong is long dead, she is with me still.’

From the discarded ‘cages of shame’ we’d seen earlier in the day, it was the best ever anniversary present to see those bears lucky enough to have been rescued, lounging around on purposebuilt platforms, lazing in hammocks, climbing trees or, even better, splashing about in their own private pools. They’d gone from Bear Hell to Bear Heaven.

It isn’t over by any means. Jill’s work, along with the work of animal sanctuaries and charities the world over, continues and desperately needs our help. I would say here that if you ever see animal horrors while on holiday, don’t just walk on by.

Take pictures and if you can’t do anything on the spot, contact an animal charity when you get home. An Australian woman on our recent trip to Vietnam heard me talking about the plight of captive macaques and she said: ‘It’s been going on for hundreds of years and you won’t be able to do anything to stop it’. But I say: ‘YES YOU CAN’.

Edited extract from Memoirs Of A Party Animal, by Angela Humphery, with Liz Hodgkinson, is published by Lulu.com, priced £7.99.


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