Many years ago whilst reading a magazine I came across one of those awful pictures of a beautiful bear kept in a tiny cage being used for its bile to make herbal medicines. I think I started to donate $10 every month and hoped the money was going somewhere worthwhile and making a difference to at least one little bear’s life.
Well on Monday I got to see for myself where my money ended up by visiting the “Free the Bears” sanctuary about one hour south of Phnom Penh. As part of a way to raise money the sanctuary allows visitors to come in and be a bear keeper for a day.
I picked a great day to visit as I was the only visitor there! Pisi, Manny and Safia took great care of me and showed me around the whole park. There are two types of bears living at the sanctuary – the Sun Bear and the Moon Bear.
The Sun Bear or Malayan Sun Bear is quite small in size and has short, sleek fur. They have a white bib shaped marking on their chest The Moon Bear or Asian Black Bear is larger in size, with thick fur and they have a white V shape over there chest.
The sanctuary is incredible – they have put a lot of money, time and hard work into creating a really nice environment for the bears. I really dislike animals being kept cages and was a little disappointed to see the bears behind fences and electric wire. However the staff explained to me that the bears have many acres of land to roam in and they are provided with a large cage to sleep in during the night if they want. They are only locked in the cage when the handlers need to go into the paddock to scatter fresh fruit and vegetables and collect their balls (explained further on). And most importantly the bears really seemed happy and normal. Sadly these bears will never be able to be released back into the wild as poachers are still hunting them and their forests are disappearing quickly.
As part of my bear keeper-ing I helped create “enrichments” for the bears. This involves filling a big plastic ball full of two bananas, a hand full of bean shoots, a hand full of dog biscuits, a spoonful of strawberry jam and a hand full of morning glory (a plant). Manny, Safia and myself had to fill 30 balls. Once completed, we stacked them into a small trailer and took them to the bears, where we had to throw the balls over the fence.
Well…the bears have an amazing sense of smell and boy did they come running on their little hands and feet as fast as they could! I’d never seen anything like it when they each grabbed a ball, rolled onto their back and held the ball up with all fours and stuck their tongue into the ball, pulling all the food out on to their bellies. It was just gorgeous! They absolutely love “ball time”.
Also as part of the bear’s enrichments, I was able to go into their paddock (while they were locked away of course) and hide fruit, berries, morning glory and veggies for them to sniff out and find once released again. Its part of them working for their food and not just getting it given to them. It was great fun then watching them come back out into the paddock and run around smelling and finding the food I thought I hid well from them!
Can I just say that macaque monkeys are horrible, nasty creatures. They climb into the bears enclosures and steal their food sometimes before the bears have a chance to find it! Safia and I were standing together and she threw a stick at one of the macaques to try and chase it away but it lurched at us with its ugly face! Safia screamed!! I screamed!! The macaque screamed and ran up a tree!!
Also in the same area is the Phnom Tamao Zoo/Rescue Centre (http://phnomtamaozoo.com) I’ve copied this from their website:
Manny and Safia also took me around this part of the park to visit the gibbons, a tiger, a lion and more elephants. They do a great job rescuing these animals and taking care of them.
You can see the photos of the bears here: https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.741992379178973.1073741832.100001046523887&type=1&l=1da1864b6d