“I’m not a teacher, babe, but I can teach you something, not a preacher but we can pray if you wanna.”

All of us stood, waiting and watching and willing him to do it. We had spent a week making it, anticipating this very moment when we could sit back and enjoy the enriching effects of all our hard work. After 20 minutes though, Ralphie still seemed unsure and after a few half hearted attempts to use our new toy he had decided that all this strenuous effort deserved a nap. Disappointed we all wondered off to carry on with some more tasks, intermittently checking back to see whether Ralphie had mastered it yet.

Ralphie is a beautiful Sun Bear with 4 legs but only 3 feet. He is currently on his own therefore needed some extra enrichment so we thought who better than him to try out our new creation. Peter and I had taken the concept of the hammocks which the Bears all have access to and decided to make them more dynamic. If we built one with a flat base on a frame and hung it from chains then it would be more like a swing for the Bears and therefore more challenging and hopefully fun – a dynamic hammock. It would encourage their natural climbing and investigation behaviours whilst strengthening their muscles and making them think. That was the idea anyway. Ralphie on the other hand remained unsure.

After what seemed like hours of sending every encouraging vibe his way he decided that maybe this new thing wasn’t quite the monster he thought it was and the marmalade which had been expertly catapulted onto the dynamic hammock was looking rather tasty. And so Ralphie eventually plucked up the courage to make a leap of faith and get on it. We all whooped and cheered when we realised he had finally climbed on and to see this Bear swinging around and lapping up marmalade was very rewarding.

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However it soon became apparent that Ralphie couldn’t stop swinging. If anything he was getting faster! Our joy turned to worry which was mirrored in poor Ralphie’s face as he wanted to get off but couldn’t figure out how. We realised then that, for this particular Bear an anchor on one corner was the way to go at which point Ralphie stumbled off, keeping one eye suspiciously on the hammock at all times and eventually went back to napping.

Not to be deterred Peter and I planned for it to be moved into a different enclosure with more agile Bears and a slight change in set up. This time Hefty and Kong would get to play. Their reaction could not have been more different. They both loved it and we were surprised at the amazing agility they displayed whilst playing with it. We eventually moved it over to house seven to give it the ultimate in prototype testing – would it be Moon Bear proof?

After a few days we caught up with the keeper of house seven (one of the smiliest men you will ever meet) and he told us that everybody who had had access to it loved it, particularly James which is one of our favourite Bears. Peter and I quickly cooked up another one to try on the cubs of house two and left instructions for the keepers on how to make even more. What was great was that we had made them from the materials of the old hammocks. Each hammock costs $100 in materials and a considerable amount of effort from the keepers and volunteers to make so if we could save on costs we definitely wanted to.

But this was not the only enrichment success we had. We’d created hanging trickle feeder “socks,” scented rope fenders, dangling logs, last minute feeder cubes (made an hour before we left on our last day) and even delivered Christmas enrichment for some of the sponsor Bears. Seeing little Hank playing with his presents was definitely a highlight of the whole trip.

Due to our enrichment passion we had been asked on two occasions to do a demonstration to the keepers of the whole of Phnom Tamao. This would of course involve large amount of hand gestures, Khmer translation and “here’s what I made earlier” examples. We did one on enrichment in general and one on rope splicing for which Peter (who is an expert) did incredibly well. The keepers really seemed to enjoy the sessions and, particularly with the rope splicing came away with a brand new skill. I was even asked if I could help out on other sections of the park. It was, without a doubt one of the most amazingly rewarding things i have ever done in my life. To be actively aiding the welfare of many animals and encouraging the keepers to try new ideas and be creative felt like we were really making a difference. I came away beaming, buzzing and on a complete high! It was an honour to work alongside such amazing people with such a willingness to learn and improve. To be seen as valuable enough to act as a teacher for them was just incredible.

But eventually we came to the end of our three week placement at Free the Bears. We had learnt a great deal, developed as keepers and definitely as members of the human race too. Cambodia can be a humbling place, especially when you get to know some of the people within it. But for now I could leave knowing that the Bears were in the best care possible with such a dedicated team looking out for them. I could happily think of them enjoying all their new enrichment items. And you never know, one day Ralphie may even grow to love his dynamic hammock.

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