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IFLScience Meets: Conservationist Alan Knight Talks Founding A Charity, Dancing Bears, And The Eternal Usefulness Of Vets

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Rachael Funnell

Social Editor and Staff Writer

clockApr 12 2021, 12:08 UTC
IFLScience Meets: Conservationist Alan Knight Talks Founding A Charity, Dancing Bears, And The Eternal Usefulness Of Vets

It seems, running an animal charity can involve surprisingly few animals. Image courtesy of Alan Knight.

Alan Knight, who has been awarded an OBE in the Queen of England's Birthday Honours List, is CEO of International Animal Rescue, a charity working to end the suffering of animals across the globe (including these enraged slow lorises and Bomban the baby orangutan). Having cared deeply for animals his entire life and founded a conservation charity in the late 80s, Knight gave up his family business to take over at the helm of International Animal Rescue in Uckfield, UK, over two decades ago. Here, he talks to us about raising animal welfare issues, ending centuries-long animal abuse practices – and how sometimes, the two combined can lead to hostile receptions.

What do you do?

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I am one of the Founders and Chief Executive Officer of International Animal Rescue, an animal welfare and conservation charity.

What did it take to get here?

It was a long road. I did a degree in Biology at Sussex University. I was really interested in animal welfare and joined lots of groups at University including the Hunt Saboteurs Association. Once you start looking at one animal abuse you tend to get involved in lots more. I started IAR with a friend in 1988 and in 1999 I joined full time as a member of staff and we have expanded ever since.

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Imagine you’ve met yourself as a teenager at a careers fair: How would you describe what you do to your former self?

I am the face of the charity which hopefully gives people the confidence to donate to our projects. My job is to enthuse people to support our projects. Giving to charity is all about trust and I hope when I talk to potential donors I inspire them with my own passion and also with the confidence that we will use their money wisely.

What's the most common misconception about your line of work? 

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Most people think I work with animals all the time. In fact, I don’t get to see the animals very much at all. Most of my time is working with teams to raise money for our projects around the world. Of course I visit the projects regularly – or rather, I did before the pandemic!

Proudest moment on the job?

I think my proudest moment was when I was part of the team in Southern India that welcomed the last dancing bear into our sanctuary. We had campaigned for seven years to end the trade in dancing bears on the streets of India and together with a group of other charities including our partners Wildlife SOS we achieved our dream on December 18, 2009, when the last bear walked into the gates of our sanctuary. This was the end of a trade that had lasted over 400 years!

alan knight
"Giving to charity is all about trust and I hope when I talk to potential donors I inspire them with my own passion." Image courtesy of Alan Knight

Hairiest moment on the job?

I remember taking the comedian Bill Bailey into a small village in the north of India to meet the local Kalandar nomads who danced the bears. What we didn’t realise was that the local Government had stopped the Kalandars working several weeks before so they were not allowed to dance their bears and therefore had no money at all. This resulted in a very hostile reception and ended in Bill and I having to run for our lives out of the village being chased by machete-wielding villagers!

What’s your most treasured piece of kit?

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I always take a small red box that I got at my doctor’s surgery. It's packed with all sorts of medicines including insect bite cream, burn cream, antiseptic cream, rehydration fluid, Imodium, and all sorts of tablets for all sorts of things that you wouldn’t think you need. I normally end up being the expedition pharmacy!

What’s one piece of advice you'd give to someone wanting to embark on a similar career?

If I had my time again I would probably have tried a little harder at college and become a vet. Vets are always needed by rescue centers and have an excellent chance to make themselves indispensable which is a good way of getting a job helping animals!


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