That was one of the first greetings we heard when we first came to Borneo. But we didn’t hear it just that one time. We heard it quite regularly, because every time the power went out people would just roll their eyes to the ceiling and laugh. “Welcome to Sandakan!” they’d say, and well, after a while, we all started saying the same thing.
But there was another greeting we heard a few times. We were four volunteers: me, Jo, Marie, and Warren, and on our first day we were taken to the centre for a look around. Up on the feeding platform, we watched the dirty half-dozen (Bongkud, Ah Bui, Debbie, Mary, Damai, and Fulung) forage about in Pen D. Within about five minutes a cry broke through the jungle. Low, trumpeting – just a hint of irritation to give it a bit of a bite. That’s the quality that makes your spine stiffen and your eyes swivel, trying to catch sight of a lurking predator.
“Um…what was that?”
Just a flash of a smile. “Welcome to Jurassic Park!”
Of course, they were only (only!) orphaned pygmy elephants. Which makes an awful lot of sense when you consider that the T. Rex from Jurassic Park had a roar that was compiled from various extant animals, mainly baby elephants. But it did emphasise that we were moving into a different world entirely, where we would wander on walkways that reminded you of velociraptor pens (AND THE GATES WERE OPEN), with their PETANG ELEKTRIK signs every few feet. And the ever watchful macaques and orang-utans kept you on your toes, never quite knowing if they might take offense to the way you walked or the fact you were carrying a big colourful tub filled with papaya and bananas. (Pro tip: don’t wear your sunglasses on feeding walks. You will regret it.)
I also was never sure if Roger was pulling my leg about the alleged bee’s nest in Pen E. I kind of figured if there was one, we ought to pick it up as a treat for the bears, but then again…I wasn’t volunteering. I wouldn’t even carry back the pill millipede, which Warren ended up giving to Bermuda. He chomped down on that with great gusto. Bermuda, never change. Although I do wonder who stole the hose on Warren’s first day – I will never forget him racing into the kitchen to interrupt our corn and sugar cane duty. “I need honey! One of the bears has my hose!” Because if you ever want something back from a sun bear: get the honey. Trust me on this one.
Maybe that’s why I found myself often gravitating towards Amaco: because he was so clearly an example of what humans can do so wrong by these bears, and how even when circumstances change they can’t necessarily get “better,” at least not without hard work. I liked to take Amaco’s food to him, attracting his attention before scattering the bananas and melon and papaya about the den. I loved watching him disembowel his bananas, or climb to the top of the cage looking for the corn lodged up in the ceiling. It gave him something else to do, something that’s not the coping mechanisms he was forced to find as a cub, and I really liked that. The little building project that we volunteers got involved in was all about building some outdoor enrichment for Amaco and Gutuk, which we nicknamed “the retirement village.” I really hope both of them like getting out of the bear house and into something a step closer to their natural environment.
In the end Amaco was still a favourite, but I then developed soft spots for Gutuk and Om, because I gave them their porridge most days I was there. I also found Chin fascinating, and you can’t help but notice Bermuda and get to know him. I remember watching Bongkud and Fulung mock-fighting inside one morning, and then they had a repeat performance out in the enclosure during morning feeding. It’s not a bad thing: it’s all a part of learning about being a bear out in the wild. It’s all an aid to their reintegration.
As the note taker, I could not touch the bear, but I was that close to her it didn’t feel like it mattered. The darting process is always slightly traumatic for the bears – there’s no easy way to do it with potentially dangerous animals like these – and she seemed restless in her anaesthesia. Being a pharmacist, I had to check out what she’d been given, and ended up reading somewhat extensively on it. The bear’s eyes also remain open during the procedure, so they’re given antibiotic eyedrops to keep them moist and free of infection, and the bear is masked to help keep them calm and still.
Panda was weighed first, and then transferred to the table where measurements and general health observations were made. I loved seeing her teeth up close, and also the remarkable claws the bears have evolved for their arboreal life. Their ears are ridiculously small and cute. I’m not sure why we measure them, specifically, but I didn’t care. I just liked seeing cute ears up close and personal. And their tails!
Panda then looked sadly at me from her own den, and I couldn’t resist one last go round of my favourite thing: making a little puddle on the floor so she could starfish in it. You have to be careful with the water – too much, and it damages their paws – but the bears love puddling in it. And I could never be sure if or when they might overheat, though Wong assured me they pant like dogs to cool themselves down. Still, as I wandered down the corridor, I saw Linggam thumping his paws in his empty waterdish, and had to fill his too. Two seconds later? Empty water dish, and water all over me and the bear. He seemed happy enough. I just had to laugh.