Celebrities like basketball star Yao Ming have helped energize China's animal rights movement by speaking out against shark fin soup and bear bile tonics, an animal welfare group said Tuesday.
Jill Robinson, who established the Hong Kong-based Animals Asia Foundation in 1998, said she's seen interest in animal rights snowball in China over the last few years, spurred by support from celebrities and shifting attitudes among ordinary people.
Robinson spoke at an event in Beijing calling for an end to bear bile farming, the practice of extracting bile from the gall bladders of living bears. The animals are caged and milked of bile through catheters, which animal rights groups contend is cruel.
On Saturday, Yao visited one of Robinson's bear sanctuaries in Sichuan province. The 7-foot-6 (2.29-meter) former NBA center clipped the nails of an anesthetized bear and shook its paw, then strolled around the facility with his wife, looking at the bear enclosures and a bear graveyard.
Yao has also campaigned against the weekly slaughter of an estimated 1.5 million sharks to make shark fin soup. The practice is taking some of the species close to extinction.
The English-born Robinson said a Chinese government official encouraged her years ago to "start the debate" about animal rights in China.
"I've never forgotten that and that's always been our motive, our incentive and finally it's coming home to roost, finally it's working," she said. "It's almost at the point now where we can step back, as people within the (Chinese) community, within the public, and within the media really take the reins."
The change reflects both a growing environmental awareness and the increasing affluence of ordinary Chinese, who keep pets, travel overseas and are changing attitudes toward traditions they may not have questioned in the past.
Last week, Chinese voiced outrage when a pharmaceutical company that sells tonics made with bear bile announced plans for a public listing. Dozens of Chinese entertainers, writers and other celebrities signed a petition to the China Securities Regulatory Commission urging it to withhold approval for the initial public offering by Guizhentang, a Chinese medicines maker.
Hundreds of thousands of comments on Weibo, a Chinese microblog, blasted the company for extracting bile from bears.
"In China, it's a very, very exciting time," said Animal Asia's senior veterinarian Monica Bando. "There are more animal protection groups than there have ever been and there are more local groups taking the initiative to rescue dogs from dog meat markets and blogging about various other animals rights issues."
Chinese activists have staged mass releases of cats and dogs caged for shipment to restaurants and markets, where they are slaughtered for dishes considered to be delicacies or especially nourishing.
Robinson said it's been gratifying to see a vibrant, homegrown movement taking shape. She recalled a recent phone call from an activist in Shanghai who told her: "You can step back now. This is our fight now."
"It was just great to hear that," she said. "It's something that I've been waiting to hear for a long, long time."