Dame Judi Dench: ‘I grew up with 16 cats and have now adopted a bear’

As perhaps the most treasured of all our national treasures – a tag she dislikes but simply cannot escape – it’s a given that Dame Judi Dench is one of our finest actresses. If not the finest. She has after all in her possession an Academy Award, a Tony, six British Academy Film Awards, four British Academy Television Awards, seven Laurence Oliviers and countless other nominations.

She also has a passion for the Bard and in her recently published book, Shakespeare: The Man Who Pays The Rent, she opens up, about every Shakespearean role she has played throughout her long, uber-illustrious career. What is less well known about Dame Judi, however, is her passion for animals and the profound part they’ve played in her life since childhood.

The biggest clue came four years ago when she played Old Deuteronomy in the 2019 film adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s smash-hit musical Cats.

“I suppose it starts with the fact that when I was a child growing up in York during the war, we had 16 cats,” chuckles the 88-year-old star of stage and screen.

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“Yes 16! My pa was a doctor for people not just in the city itself but also in the outlying areas which included quite a few farms.

“Sometimes, he’d be given a chicken or a duck to bring back for us to eat. Food was so scarce at the time and we were terribly lucky. The cats in the area soon got wind of this, having been fed the scraps, and so that’s how we ended up with 16.”

Having shared her life with pets from such a young age, Dame Judi feels animals have much to teach children about life.

“It’s such a good thing for children to have animals around,” she continues. “It’s so beneficial. It makes them very, very much aware of the responsibility that comes with caring for creatures – the experience of having a dog, cats, a hamster or whatever. When my grandson Sammy was small, he had a pet rat.

“It’s about understanding something different and how caring for animals is terribly important. And if you start, you know, with a child with a pet and you teach your child those things, I mean, then with any luck that child will go on all his or her life to care about the wellbeing of animals.

“It’s not just children who benefit from contact with animals, either.

“We all do. Recently, I went to see a friend who was very, very ill, and on her bed was a wonderful cat who just wandered about and was allowed to jump up.

“And, well, I can’t think of anything nicer than having a cat jump up and lie down in your bed beside you. What a wonderful comfort. I don’t have any animals in the house at the moment but it’s the first time in a very long time I haven’t.”

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What Dame Judi does have, though, is an adopted bear in Vietnam who has been rescued by the Animals Asia Foundation, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. They are known as “bile bears” because their stomachs are “tapped” by the most excruciating methods for their stomach bile – believed to be a cure for all manner of ailments in the Far East.

They are permanently trapped from birth in cages barely larger than their bodies and kept half-starved in order to produce bile.

When they are no longer able to produce, they are left to die in their cages. Animals Asia campaigns for an end to all bear bile farming in Asia and has two rescued bear sanctuaries in China and Vietnam.

Dame Judi has sponsored the bear whom she has named Finty after her much-loved daughter. She is hoping to visit Vietnam before too long in order to meet Finty-the-bear, accompanied by Finty-the-daughter, 51, and grandson Sammy, now 26.

“I was told about the plight of these bears by my good friend, actor Peter Egan,” she explains. “I saw pictures not very long ago of cages all together with the bears, so cramped that some could barely stand up or turn around. You can’t do that to an animal.

“When I found out I could adopt a bear, I jumped at the chance. Calling the bear ‘Finty’ immediately made it a personal thing – as if the bear was a member of the family. I’m hoping to adopt another bear whom I’ll call Sammy. This cause and the amazing work Animals Asia do need publicising. The suffering these beautiful animals go through is unspeakable.”

It is animals that brought Judi’s “chap”, as she always calls him, into her life in 2010, nine years after she had lost her husband, actor Michael Williams. Conser- vationist David Mills runs the British Wildlife Centre not far from where Judi lives in Surrey.

It is home to the finest collection of native wildlife in Britain with more than 40 different native species, from tiny harvest mice to magnificent red deer.

David was a dairy farmer before selling his herd in 1997 and opening the centre on the site of the former farm.

“I would drive past there with Finty and Sammy and they’d say, ‘The man in there has otters’,” explains Dame Judi.

“My passion is otters. I’m mad about them. Then Finty and I were taken with some friends of hers to see the red squirrels who lived there.”

Having met David and struck up a friendship, he lobbied for her support.

“He then asked me to come and open the new red squirrel enclosure which I did,” Dame Judi continues.

“Again, if you don’t own an animal the next best thing is to watch them – that’s especially true for children.”

It’s clear the star, who played M in seven Bond films over 17 years, worries like many of us about the future of the planet.

“I hope we’re more aware of what we’re doing to the world and the earth,” she says.

“I have a terrible vision of the future. You look at close-up pictures of the moon and are told there’s a crater that was once a river and it chills me to the bone to think the same thing will happen to this planet.

“So, the more we can find out about this earth we live in the more we can discover about the things that are happening, what we are doing to it and the animals we share the planet with.

“At times, you have a wonderful bright light like Animals Asia emerging, organisations who are fighting to combat the maltreatment of animals.

“Like the bears being understood for the first time and not being in cages, not being in prison. It’s the same with dogs being caged and kept in markets. I just spread the word in order to try and make people more aware. And I think people are becoming more aware.”

Animals aside, Dame Judi will be appearing at the Royal Albert Hall in a festive fun-filled evening with her old friend Gyles Brandreth on December 15.

The pair will host a Christmas party with a star-studded cast of very special guests, as well as some seasonal party performances from Judi and Gyles, and a bran tub full of surprises such as reciting Shakespeare and anecdotes galore – stories, sonnets, even some singing. Of course, there will be crackers and a Christmas tree, too.

Although acting on stage may no longer be viable for our greatest theatrical Dame due to macular degeneration which has severely affected her eyesight, she insists retirement is definitely not on her agenda.

“Age is a number. It’s something imposed on you,” she smiles. “It drives me absolutely spare when people say, ‘Are you going to retire? Isn’t it time you put your feet up?’ Or tell me my age.

“The only time I got really upset was when I was 40, for some reason. I was all right after that. It’s that old thing – you are only as old as you feel. It’s not to do with age. It’s something to do with what’s inside. It’s the engine.”

And Dame Judi’s seems to be cruising along just fine.

  • Every one of the last 300 bears suffering in bile farm cages in Vietnam can be saved, but only if Animals Asia can finish building their new sanctuary to give the bears a safe home. Click here to support their campaign. 

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