To the legions of animal welfare enthusiasts in Hong Kong, the outstanding hero is Jill Robinson. SAI KUNG BUZZ asked Jill about her life and plans.
Do you still live in Clearwater Bay? Do you plan to spend the rest of your life here?
I’m impossibly nomadic these days living between our sanctuary in Chengdu, Sichuan province, China, the Hong Kong office, our other sanctuary in Vietnam, the bear farm we’re converting in Nanning, and making presentations in countries across the world. No wonder I’m a Diamond Card member with Cathay Pacific – not said in any way to boast, as economy class tickets hardly wrack up the points at any great speed! At the moment I have no idea where I’ll live in the future – Asia for sure – just not certain which country.
You live with cats and dogs. Is there a man in your life?
I have four dogs in Hong Kong and three cats, and another two dogs in Chengdu. Being so nomadic, not to mention busy, does rather put the kibosh on a steady relationship, but I love the life and friendships I have. The man in my life just now is called Muppet – a hopelessly, gloriously, ridiculously silly dog who I rescued from the truck on the way to a meat market in China, and who fills my heart with love.
Tell us about your background and why you came to Hong Kong.
I’m a Brit, who flunked physics and chemistry at school and realised very early on that I’d never achieve my then dream job of being a vet. However, I used to work for a vet in the UK after school and in the holidays, and loved working hands-on with animals from quite an early age. The vet was a good teacher, but was too much hands-on with his nurses and I left to work in a cattery instead, looking after the cats of people who went on holiday. This was just a part time job too, and when I left school I went on to work in radio and television, first with the BBC and then with Thames Television. I wanted to go into research as I loved writing but then met John (Warham) , and the rest, as they say, is history.
I came to Hong Kong in 1985 with John, who was a pilot for Cathay Pacific, and went on to work with the International Fund for Animal Welfare for the next 12 years. Although separated for over 10 years now, John and I have remained good friends and he’s remained Chairman of the Board of Animals Asia. It’s funny today to think that my ex-husband is essentially my boss and although of course he doesn’t deal with the day to day issues or projects, his role, together with our other Board members, is to protect the foundation through good governance, and ensure that we are robust and grow as the years go on. We began Animals Asia in the garden of our Clearwater Bay Road home in 1998 and to this day he takes the role seriously. He’s a mate, it’s as simple as that.
Animals Asia is a big organisation now: what plans for the future do you have and how long do you want to keep going given the demands?
Until the cruelty ends. The tag line of Animals Asia pretty much applies to how long I’d like to stay on if the foundation will still have me. It’s no exaggeration to say that we’re bringing the hideously cruel and unnecessary practice of bear bile farming to an end in China and Vietnam, and it’s why Animals Asia was begun. If we can do that, I’ll leave this world a happy girl. Plans for the future include continuing our work with local groups in China and Vietnam to end the trade in dogs and cats, expanding our animal welfare programmes in Asia, and writing a book (which continues to be a work in progress).
MBE: Why were you awarded this and how did you receive it?
I received the MBE in 1998 for services to animal welfare in Asia – it was a big year actually, with the birth of Animals Asia, and the birth of my gorgeous niece Nicole. John and I went to Buckingham Palace to receive the award, together with my sister Anne and her husband and my Auntie Floss. Auntie had trouble walking, which meant that the palace felt sorry for her, gave her a wheelchair and plonked her and the rest of my family in the front of the hall. It was an unforgettable day, meeting the Queen and giggling when we were told to address her “ma’am, rhyming with spam” – I’d have thought “jam” would have been far more appropriate. We had lunch afterwards with all our friends at Battersea Dogs Home, and then on to the Dorchester in the evening for dinner with the family and other special friends.
What other interests do you have aside from animals and work?
Travel definitely – I’ve just had a fantastic adventure in Cape Town, Zimbabwe, Victoria Falls, and Kenya, ending up on the coast and writing a little more of the book. This was the first proper break in over 10 years and felt incredibly liberating and appropriate. I made a promise that in amongst the stresses of work and dark elements of what we address, I’d try to make life as fun and pleasurable as possible and, in somewhat of a cliché, to seize and enjoy the day. This isn’t so hard as, in truth, I’ve always loved working with the most passionate, intelligent and productive team in the world. I think Animals Asia is very much seen as a can-do type of organisation: we do what it says on the tin and have incredibly high standards – and ethics – too.
My interest today is trying to ensure that I leave this world a better place for Nicole – and with so much violence, cruelty and extirpation of species everywhere I believe that focusing on animal welfare will, in turn, see us more attuned to the environment and protecting our world. Perhaps British philosopher Jeremy Bentham (b1748) had the most compelling argument for why, when he said, “The question is not can they reason, nor can they talk, but can they suffer?” The belief that we have “dominion” over animals in the sense of subjugation is, in my view, terribly wrong, and rather than having the power to do with them what we choose, I believe that dominion actually refers to protection; living harmoniously and peaceably with animals in a way that prevents and mitigates their suffering. We only have to look at what we eat, wear and buy today to realise that it’s at the root of so much suffering, and to acknowledge too that compassionate change is in our hands.