Animals Are Not Moving Objects
By Manling, China Plus Host
Grace Ge Gabriel takes an interview from China Plus. [Photo: China Plus]
“Animals are not moving objects!” This is the strongest message I received from Grace Ge Gabriel, a through and through animal conservationist who has been leading the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) office in China since she founded it in 1997, fighting battles at the forefront of wildlife protection, something rather remote from my own life and career.
The Chinese Zodiac gives each of us an animal sign. Among the 12 signs, only the dragon is a symbolic one. This makes the tiger the de facto king of animals, as it sits atop the food chain in the mind of Chinese people. If someone is born in the year of this top predator, he or she will be tagged with the traits of determination, aggressiveness, and bravery.
Grace and I are both tiger women, born in the same year of the big cat in the Chinese astrological calendar. Grace goes by the name BusyTiger on social media, a clear statement to the world about who she is, what she wants, and her purpose and passion of life. As for me, a BBC producer once called me belligerent after I appeared on his talk shows as a guest speaker a few times, which credit to the tiger in me. But when I first met Grace, I got the impression that she was a gentle and demure person, so I asked whether she considers herself a typical tiger?
She did. I learned that she inherited the spirit of perseverance and endurance from her mom. Grace said her mother is an extraordinary woman: She secretly taught her little girl English at a time when, were this discovered, she would have been shamed, or worse. Having foreign friends was a taboo at the time, as was learning a foreign language.
Grace describes herself as tenacious. For her, once a decision is made, there is no turning back. Chinese people also believe that differences in time of birth affect one’s personality. Grace was born at dusk; I was born at dawn. In the morning, tigers can relax with a full stomach from the hunt the day before. But by dusk, they are hungry and out hunting the day’s meal. My parents always said that since I was a tiger born at dawn with a full stomach, I’d never hurt people. This may sound superstitious but it illustrates the disturbing fact that the only animal that kills when they’re not hungry or threatened are human beings.
As Grace explained, the tiger, rather than the lion, was included in the Chinese Zodiac because it is native to Asia. Throughout the long history of Chinese culture, people have adored and feared tigers: they’re adored for their might and feared for their ferocity. This love–hate relationship can be seen in literature and art, as well as in poaching and hunting. Artistic images of masculinity and beauty are hung on the walls of our living rooms, embroidered onto our outfits, and personified on stage. We used to wear clothes made of their skins and jewelry made from their teeth and bones. Even today, some people still believe drinking tiger bone wine can cure diseases and make them strong and healthy. In their eyes, it’s an irreplaceable panacea to cure rheumatism.
It’s said that the Chinese character wang (王), which means king, comes from the pattern of the fur on the forehead of a tiger. That is one of the reasons why this ancient word became a popular family name, and you can easily find Chinese people around the world whose ancestors embraced the symbolism of the powerful tiger. The symbolism is, it should be said, something of a folk myth: If you consult a dictionary of the history of Chinese characters, you’ll see that the ancient character represented an axe, which was a symbol of the raw power of a monarch. But let’s not let the truth get in the way of a good story.
As it stands today, only a few thousand tigers are left in the wild. Their habitat and the prey they rely on for their survival are disappearing and some species have already died out. Is this how we treat the animal we adore? Some people may argue that if we don’t take their lives they will take ours. People like Grace are out there to remind people that beast such as tigers, lions, leopards, and cheetahs are ferocious only when they are hungry and threatened. My own experience in Africa resonates with this: In 2017, in one of the privately-owned nature reserve in Namibia, I saw how different lions, cheetahs, and leopards are from how I had imagined them. They were peaceful, but rangers were still holding guns while approaching them and they warned us not to stand up, make noise, or show our teeth, since these are provocative acts in the eyes of these animals. They assured us that wild animals are more afraid of us than we are of them, and at that very moment I felt strongly that we humans are the stronger creature, and more fearsome. We use our brains, our tools, and our language to conquer the world and corner wild animals, driving them to the verge of extinction.
Grace Ge Gabriel and China Plus host Manling (R) pose for a photo. [Photo: China Plus]
I said to Grace, if animals are on the weaker side of mankind’s relationship with nature, I see why you think we should give them the right to survival. After hearing me mention animal rights, Grace shook her head and resolutely said: “No, animals do not have rights!” I was taken aback by her remark. I’ve often spoken about animal rights. Was I wrong?
Grace said she fights not for rights but for the welfare of animals. With rights come obligations, she said. What obligations do animals have to the human-centered world of today? Animals don’t have obligations to protect Earth’s ecosystems. They are sentient beings like us. They feel pain. Some are highly intelligent, and share many of our traits: Grace pointed out that chimpanzees share 99.3 percent of our DNA. But animals act on instinct, and live according to their needs. But we are much more than that, which is why we have an obligation to ensure our world has a place for animals.
China has gone through decades of reform and opening up, and people now have deeper pockets for things other than feeding themselves. In the past, no families could afford to keep pets. Now dogs and cats have become members of our families, and the time is ripe to call people’s attention to the plight of animals in the wild. Under Grace, IFAW China started from scratch to introduce the concept of wildlife conservation into the country.
One of the first challenges was translating IFAW’s name into Chinese. After careful deliberation, “International Fund for Animal Welfare”, which could be literally translated into Chinese as guoji dongwu fuli jijinhui(国际动物福利基金会）, was translated into guoji aihu dongwu jijin hui（国际爱护动物基金会）, which in English means “International Fund For the Love and Care Of Animals”. The word welfare has been replaced by love and care. This isn’t because welfare is a bad word in Chinese, but rather because welfare in this context implies something altogether too luxurious to be a priority for most Chinese people: Why should we concern ourselves with giving animals a comfortable life, when we have barely caught our breath from the work of making one for ourselves?
No one could have expected that translation would have such a major role in Grace’s work, but the translation of the organization’s name was not the only example she could provide of when it has come in handy. She provided another that has been used to get people to reflect on the place of animals in the world.
The word animal in Chinese is comprised of two characters: dong wu （动物）, which literally means moving object. But aren’t people moving objects, too? We certainly were in our earliest period of evolution, when we were chasing each other around in the forest. But if animals aren’t us, what are they? They don’t move randomly; they have a territory, a place they identify as home. And they are not inanimate objects; they need food, and water, and safety, and some level of companionship. This thought exercise points to some of the things humans are responsible for providing for these creatures that inhabit the world we dominate.
When Grace came to China to open the IFAW office in Beijing in 1997, she was by herself for a long period of time. But step-by-step, IFAW China has grown to encompass 24 employees, including 16 in the main office in Beijing, six at the Raptor Rescue Center at Beijing Normal University, and two in an elephant project in southwest China’s Yunnan Province. The China office is also IFAW’s only presence in Asia. IFAW was established 50 years ago in 1969 to stop the annual slaughter of harp seals in Canada. Now it has 16 offices worldwide, with about 350 employees. IFAW’s board of directors is staffed by volunteers, and it’s their policy to only hire local people for their in-country offices.
IFAW China has made remarkable achievements in wild life conservation and animal protection. In Yunnan, it helped farmers find alternative crops to grow in order to avoid conflicts with wild elephants, helping to make Yunnan a kingdom of flowers and tea in the country. IFAW China also contributed to the total ban on all ivory trade announced by China’s government that started on January 1, 2018. The critical move closed all of the loopholes in this grey area of trade, and was lauded by the international wildlife protection community as a turning point in stopping elephant poaching and ivory smuggling. All African elephant range countries benefited from this policy.
Anyone knowledgeable about Chinese culture will understand why it took so long to make this policy a reality, and why it was by no means easy. Ivory is highly valued and has been a status symbol for Chinese people since ancient times. China used to be the biggest ivory market in the world. Today, if you walk into the Palace Museum in the Forbidden City in Beijing, you can spot the finest and most meticulously carved elephant tusk ivory sculptures. The best craftsman carved out a panoramic view of a small society from a single tusk. The artistic proficiency is striking. It represents Chinese talent and wisdom of the highest level. Should we or should we not abandon this cultural heritage?
Demand for ivory continues to exist in China and elsewhere. But what China has achieved can serve as a good example for other countries to raise awareness and change people’s consumption habits. Education and publicity campaigns are very effective: At the Ivory Crush event in the United States, Grace said the actress Kristin Bauer took out two ivory figurines, souvenirs her father brought back from Japan after the Second World War. As she threw them into the crusher, she said, “They are just things. Owning them takes lives.”
Seventy percent of the Chinese people surveyed by IFAW China in 2007 said they didn’t know an elephant had to die to harvest the ivory. So IFAW China released campaigns to educate the public. One day, people woke up to posters in bus and subway stations, bars and airports. The picture shows a baby elephant excitedly breaking the news to his mom that he has grown teeth: “Mom, I have teeth now!” But his mom looks on silently, because she knows he is now at risk of being hunted down and killed. The poster went viral in China. Grace told me about a child who went on a hunger strike to force his father to sign on a no-consumption-of-ivory promise. And an ivory carver called to say if he had known earlier that the elephant had to die, he’d have long switched to another material to express his artistic desires.
In the world of nature, animals know no boundaries. Therefore, nations need to rely on each other in the fight against poaching. According to Grace, IFAW has been engaging in many international cooperation projects such as the protection of tigers in the China-Russia border region and Tibetan antelope in China, India, and Europe. It is also educational for me to know that in order to produce a luxurious shahtoosh shawl, several wild Tibetan antelopes have to die. Only when countries along the entire trade chain, from poaching to trafficking to demand, join hands to reduce the market demand for these products can China’s Tibetan antelope be saved. China has taken steps to protect Tibetan antelope, and the IFAW’s Tibetan antelope campaign has had an impact. But, if European fashion brands continue to sell, and people continue to buy, the chances that China’s Tibetan antelope will survive will keep fading.
Two years ago when I was in Namibia, I saw a family of elephants bathing in the mud pond at dusk in a wildlife conservation park. Splashing water over their bodies using their long trunk is their unique way of keeping cool. They looked to be having a lot of fun doing it together, and it was a beautiful sight to see. From an elevated lookout, looking across the vastness of the park, I wished that piece of land was not a reserve; if only it could have remained their natural home. But I know that, for now, the relative safety of an enclosed habitat is the best thing humans can offer them. That environment, Grace pointed out in the studio, provides things humans also need: lush mountains, blue skies, and clean water. By protecting animals, we are protecting ourselves.
I got to wondering where and how Grace picked up her perception and insightfulness about the natural world. She recalled the moment when she decided to change jobs, and in doing so, put her life on a different track.
While she was at KSL TV in Utah from 1989 to 1997, Grace had the chance to come back to China to cover a story about how bile was being extracted from live bears. Traditionally, bile is an ingredient in Chinese medicine. Grace witnessed nine rescued bears being released into a reserve. Confined for so long, these bears had forgotten their natural environment. They shuddered at the mere touch of grass and soil, and retreated back to the hard cement paths in the park for comfort and security. One bear had to be euthanized because its collarbone was so deformed it couldn’t support the weight of its head. Grace has repeated this story many times, and I was also touched by it. But I was still left thinking that there must be something deeper that drove her to give up her old career, one that her and her family had used all of their financial resources preparing for. So I picked up the phone and gave her a call.
On the other end of the phone Grace told me more about her life. Due to political upheavals, Grace had no choice but to live in the countryside with her mom at the age of 7. Her mom was an English teacher in Nanjing University and her father was sent to a labor camp in northeast China. The couple had been separated for 14 years, covering the prime age of their only daughter’s growth. Grace said her memory of her father is always connected with trains because she had to travel to the northeast to see him, or else she saw him only when he went to Nanjing on the train. While in the countryside, she had no playmates and no toys, and no schools to attend. One colleague of her mom bought her a dog and named it Ermao since it had cost him twenty cents or two dimes. In Chinese currency, mao is ten cents and er means two. Ermao died a tragic death: He had taken to guarding the orchard Grace’s mom worked in. Protecting territory is a dog’s instinct. Some of the local villagers hated him for this, as he stood between them and the opportunity to pilfer the collective’s produce. One day, some of the villagers lured him away from the orchard and beat him. When he returned home, he was wet and limping. He made it home in time to die in Grace’s arms. Grace said until today she still couldn’t imagine what Ermao had gone through.
If covering the bear story was the trigger, then Ermao’s tragic death was the underlying reason why animal protection became Grace’s life’s calling. Before quitting her TV job, Grace’s boss at KSL TV kindly reminded her: In the future, your time will no longer be your own, which was to say, if you go down this new path, you will lose the privilege of a predictable life. “Knowing your time will always be your own” is exactly what killed Grace’s enthusiasm in her previous job. She was bored. She longed for a job with an international perspective, one that she could devote herself to wholeheartedly. Grace decided to convince IFAW to open an office in Beijing. She succeeded, with the full support of her loved ones.
From day one, Grace knew her job was going to be a challenge, but she has persevered to this day. When asked what inspired her to stick with it for over 20 years, she said she has learnt to relish the small victories. Take as an example the opening of the Raptor Rescue Center. It was established in 2001 by IFAW, the Wildlife Protection Station at the Beijing Forestry Bureau, and Beijing Normal University. More than 5,000 birds of prey have gone through the center. Every bird it rescues and releases back into the sky brings her joy and a sense of fulfillment.
When I asked how long she would continue in this work, she said there’s no timetable for her retirement. Besides wildlife conservation, she wants to put her journalism skills to build a bridge between China and the rest of the world in the field of animal welfare and protection. She wants to correct misconceptions about TCM and dog meat festivals. She wants the world to know that most Chinese find eating dog meat and drinking shark fin soup unacceptable, and that wildlife protection is not an idea imported from the West.
Back around 350 B.C. the great Taoist thinker Zhuang Zi (庄子) promulgated the idea of harmony between people and the environment. Unfortunately, for the past 200 years, China has been plagued with war, poverty, and political turmoil. And the pursuit of industrial development has left deep scars across the nation’s ecosystems. It has devastated wildlife populations, just as it did in America and Europe. China is developing at a fast pace, but mankind’s history has taught us that development should not come at the cost of animal extinction. It’s time to revive the ancient Chinese wisdom of maintaining harmony between man and nature. IFAW is an international NGO that has provided Grace a chance to work towards this goal.
Grace and I are tiger women who have a lot in common in terms of our education and family background. But an important difference between us is that when she was little she had the company of a dog, and I didn’t. And this is part of the reason why her career shifted away from journalism and put us on opposite sides of the studio. Growing up in the countryside can be a hardscrabble existence. But it has its blessings, and the ability to grow up surrounded by animals, and even have an animal companion, are two of them. When I was growing up in the city, living within the confines of state food rations, even a stray cat was a rare sight in my childhood. But Grace had enjoyed the company of Ermao, which is why this story could be called, “How Ermao Reset Grace’s Career Path.”