I used to know a Bear called Victor. He is a Polar Bear that stole the hearts and minds of thousands and I have a lot to thank him for. I never worked with him much but when I got the opportunity to see him I always delighted in it. In his tiny coal black eyes amidst a riot of white fur he unleashed something in me that gave me hope. He would blink at me and all the anger and hurt that I had would melt away. I would watch him sleep and feel at peace too. He also happened to bring three zoo keepers to the park one day, one of whom would happen to decide that I was worth something; even moving house, changing job, obscene amounts of driving on horrendous roads and jacking it all in to come travelling with me. I can never thank Victor enough for bringing Peter into my life.
Peter loves Bears too. In their cub-like inquisitiveness and insatiable appetite I think he sees a little of himself and who can blame him, they are amazing. As our host states “aren’t Bears addictive!” He also delights in their lack of negative stigma in comparison to other animals. They are not seen as slimy reptiles or cold blooded killers or blood sucking vermin. They just go about their business in peace most of the time and, of course, are seen to be rather cuddly.
Unfortunately others have a different view of them. They are seen as a commodity – something to be used for the sole benefit of humans and monetary gain. This can be through all sorts of horrendous concepts; for soup ingredients, for traditional medicines, for dancing and yes, for that age old fury inducing practice of exotic pets. The suffering these poor animals go through at our hands is unimaginable, and even after being rescued they have gone through too much to be released back into the wild. So what becomes of them when the cubs are so big they destroy the house or people look for synthetic alternatives to medicine? Rescue is only part of the story, what happens next?
Welcome to Free The Bears!
The organisation is fantastic. It was set up by an Australian named Mary Hutton who saw a news article on Bear bile farms which changed her life. The very next day she started a petition to end the cruel practice and to free as many Bears as she could. There are now several sanctuaries across South East Asia including the one we are at in Cambodia which help to house rescued Bears and give them a better life. If you don’t know much about the bile industry then do a little bit of googling but have the tissues ready – it’s truly horrific. However the Bears we are working with are primarily rescued ex pets or taken from restaurants in which they would supply ingredients for bear paw soup. Some of the Bears we work with are actually missing paws or legs but this is sometimes due to being caught in snares too.
There are two species of Bear that we work with – Sun Bears (Helarctos malayanus) and Moon Bears (Ursus thibetanus) and they are wildly different. Sun Bears are very playful, inquisitive and noisy! I’ve seen some truly determined individuals limping around on three legs with all the speed of the others, racing towards a banana or enrichment ball. Moon Bears are a little more sedate when they want to be, choosing often to just lay back in their hammocks and watch the world go by (or watch us and their keepers cleaning their enclosures). They amble around at a slightly slower speed sticking their noses into everything and shaking the insects out of their fluffy manes. Moon Bears are also bigger than Sun Bears and have a beautiful white triangle on their chests whereas the Sun Bears have a pale orange crescent on theirs. Each marking is unique.
However some individuals are easier to spot than others. There’s “Brandy” a blonde bear that looks like a Lion with her tawny fur and chocolate coloured mane. She’s certainly a flagship Bear but i loved her for her calm and collected personality. She is one of those individuals that you can have a really good conversation with and she will stay because she wants to, not because you have food. There is also “Tom-Tom” (which is Khmer for big) who is a hybrid bear. He effectively looks like a beefed up Sun Bear as he is massive but lacking the Moon Bear mane and face shape. He certainly seems to be a favourite amongst the keepers. There’s also “James” another Moon bear who caused some confusion on our very first day as his keepers pronounce his name as “Jem.”
After a week of scrubbing floors, chopping veg, creating enrichment and fawning over Bears I am right back into the zookeeper zone. From the very first day I was so happy to be back in this environment. All that kept running through my head was “I’m a keeper again!” And it’s wonderful to be helping animals in such need.
Peter and I are both huge fans of creating enrichment (toys and objects for animals that encourage natural behaviours) and this is a big part of what we are here to do. The Bears already get plenty of enrichment, particularly in comparison with their previous lives but we are here to help with some bigger projects and suggest ideas of our own. And we have both found that our ideas have really been listened to and acted upon despite the language barrier. Discussions are always solely to increase Bear welfare in any and all ways possible and it’s truly fantastic to have our opinions heard and our advice taken.
Of course, as ever we are always learning too and hopefully improving our skills as we go. I have certainly learnt plenty about Bears already and the challenges of zookeeping in a tropical climate. Our days are generally quite different depending on the project at hand but usually we start the morning by poo picking the outdoor enclosures, scatter feeding and then cleaning the indoor enclosures. This is often followed by a feed chop or chance to make enrichment followed by lunch. During lunch we lay in hammocks, eating, chatting and warding off the cheeky Macaques. It’s rather surreal but nice. After lunch there could be more enrichment making, more food prep, more scatter feeding and plenty of discussions as to improvements and changes we could make. There’s also chances to see some of the Bears in different houses (8 in total plus a quarantine house) and we even visited the nearby temple too.
Free the Bears is actually part of a massive wildlife centre called Phnom Tamao. I’d never been to a zoo in a developing country before (because I’d never been anywhere before!) so I was a little apprehensive of what I might see. However the park is partnered with “Wildlife Alliance” which aims to improve welfare standards as much as possible. Luckily there is plenty of space so the enclosures are nice and big and very spaced out. A lot of them have the old cage feel to them and there is actually live-feeding for the Snakes which is illegal in the UK but overall I was impressed with the work that is being done. It does help that a lot of the species kept are native to Cambodia, the Bears being a prime example, so for a naturalistic enclosure all that needs to be done is to fence off a piece of existing jungle, add a pond and a few climbing structures and you’ve got yourself a fairly decent enclosure.
The thing that really sticks in my mind though is the keepers. They really love their job and are so proud of it. When asking one of the team how long he had worked there he replied “six years!” with such a huge grin on his face it was almost blinding. Every keeper knows all their Bears individually and are very proud of the cleanliness of the houses they are in charge of. Most do not speak English so the language barrier as been interesting but there’s not much keeping that can’t be instructed by overzealous hand gestures. And the love they have for their job is evident in any language. I know exactly how that feels too.
Over the course of our time here (Peter and I are staying for 3 weeks) we have been joined by others who are sometimes industry trained, sometimes connected in some way to Free the Bears or sometimes just animal loving travellers who want to see what it’s all about. We have met some wonderfully charismatic people who have become firm friends and encouraged everything from positive thinking to questionable Khmer language practice! And as much as I love zookeeping, this is also what I love about travel, no matter whether they are Bear or human, you never quite know who you will meet next and what their story might be.