Text by Amanda Wilson
Photos by Amanda Wilson & Chiew Lin May
Being a fresh graduate, waiting for the next step can be pretty daunting. Since I had plenty of time, I finally decided to go on with my plans of coming back to BSBCC that has been long overdue. Initially, I planned on staying for two weeks but later figured if 10 weeks was not enough, 2 surely won’t do, so it came to be a month. However, while I was there, I extended my stay again, TWICE! I can never get enough of this place. I’m Amanda, 23, and I’m a return volunteer. It’s my second time around since my internship back in 2018. Although I always visit the centre when I’m in Sandakan, being a volunteer gives me much more privilege to be involved and to help out with the rehabilitation process at the bear house. Born in KK and raised here in Sandakan, this place is like my second home with extended family of friends, both people and bears!
My main goal of coming back is to grow, to learn as much as I can, be more exposed to this field and do things I did not get to do the last time. And of course, to see the bears again up close! I’ve missed this fluffballs of cuties! It has been a little over a year since I’ve been here but lots of things have changed especially at the bear house.
When I was doing my internship, heavy rain knocked down a huge tree that destroyed the second platform. I could literally remember how hectic it was with us volunteers and David, our senior keeper, at the bear house and everyone else including other staffs from the Orangutan centre and Wildlife Rescue Unit trying to get Wawa back into the bear house. I panicked trying to guard the front door of the Bear House from Wilmar, the orangutan, who was ‘blowing a raspberry’ at me for catching her trying to sneak in while the rest of us was busy feeding the bears. We waited for Kuamut, Fulung and Wawa to come back while it poured heavily outside. It was only till it’s dark out can we finally go home with relief as all bears were alright though the platform and fencing was completely destroyed. Everybody was cold and exhausted. This time, we get to enjoy a bigger, spacious and beautifully designed second visitor platform. Everytime I had the time, I would go up to the visitor platform and look at the bears enjoying the outdoors as well as talk to the visitors who got just as enthusiastic as I was talking about the bears!
We bid farewell to some and welcomed new additions to the family of staff at the centre, with a new veterinarian, new bear care coordinator, 4 new junior keepers and 2 new ticketing staff. I was very excited on my first day. This time around, my buddy is Danny, a new junior keeper, who’s playful and never a bore when we work together. Since he’s quite new to the centre and I haven’t been here for a year, we both took our time to learn the changes together. When I first arrived, I was afraid of not being able to recognise between the bears, but after a few days, I actually still remember them! Well, apart from those who moved cages and those that has outgrown themselves of course, like little Logan who’s not so little anymore! I used to peep through the bear house windows watching little Logan and Romolina pass by when they go for walks with the keepers. In the first week, I got to meet 2 other lovely return volunteers as well, cheeky Alicia and friendly Nithisha! Hoping I get to meet them again someday! With other volunteers, they made my days much brighter at the centre~
In the first few days, it was pretty obvious that 5 months at home made me lethargic since I have not been working out but cleaning the dens sure make up for it! Every task here made me stronger and helped trained my muscles again. From carrying heavy basins of food, drilling, hammering and sawing, bolting and unbolting, I’m thankful the keepers never underestimate me but rather look out and guide me through when carrying out ‘ungirly’ tasks! With more new staffs and a new working schedule, the tasks at the bear house is now divided more systematically and volunteers like us have it much easier. Although I miss hiking twice a day carrying heavy basins of food around the forest enclosure to feed them and carrying coconut husk-filled sacks!
With our very own new veterinarian, Dr Boon, the bears’ diet has become a lot more complicated and can be pretty intimidating for a first timer. Their food quantity has increased and now they are being fed with a clean and much more healthy, natural diet! I was worried about mixing up the servings and getting the whole food preparation wrong but thanks to all the staffs, it was much easier than I thought! Feeding the bears is my favourite task! Whether it’s in the bear house or especially outside in the perimeter of the forest enclosures, I like to observe how each of the bears receive and gobble up their food ! It makes you go ‘aawww’~
In the morning, the keepers would also be assigned to do fecal check and body score to be compiled into a graph of the bear’s annual or monthly growth. I also got the privilege to assist Dr Boon to do parasite analysis by fecal floatation on the bear’s faeces sample. I got to help with Amaco, Panda and Chin’s as well as Linggam with the bachelorette group (Manis, Susie, Kuamut, Cerah and Jelita).
Due to some bears digging their way into other enclosures and fighting with other bears, we had to take the initiative to stop them from creating more holes in between the fence of adjacent enclosures. Hence, we cut some iron rods and hammered them 6 inches apart into the soil next to the fence. We’re keeping our fingers crossed that Montom would not dig them all out!
Sometimes I would join the keepers to go for fence check and that’s when my clumsiness shines through, slipping on my bum especially in this rainy season when the soil gets muddy. On my last day, it was slightly drizzling in the morning, but the overnight rain flooded some of the enclosures. Wawa, the wild explorer, escaped into Pen D overnight was thankfully still there in the morning when we found out. She gave me yet another surprised bark when she spotted me wrapped up in my raincoat shielding from the rain during fence check. With the bears depositing poop around some smaller forest enclosure, I got to join and help in scattering chalk powder to neutralize the acidity of the soil in some of the enclosures.
The last time around, I got to make 2 structural enrichments, a ramp and a platform. This time, I got to design and make a structural enrichment for Phin and Wan-Wan thanks to Mizuno with help from Danny, Pradeep and Bithrenley! Besides that, everytime I had the time I would try to make small enrichments with help from my buddy keeper, Danny and other keepers. Some of the enrichments I got to make this time are happy sacks, fire hose, Aussie Dog Ball, nest balls, ginger leaves and egg carton enrichments ! I also helped Nithisha and Alicia with their ice blocks and got to help Mizuno prepare coconut treats for Mamatai, Wan-Wan and Amaco. I got to learn to make a honeycomb as well as putting treats into some of the enrichments like the log feeder in Amaco’s den. Whenever I had the time, I would fill the cleaned honeycombs and Aussie Dog ball and give them to the bears that stay in the bear house for the day, hoping these little enrichments would help keep them busy and engaged with their sensory skills !
I was assigned with a project to observe all 43 bears in the bear house and quarantine area and I could not be happier! Observing the bears is the best part about working here, each bear with their own personality and quirks. Honestly, I’ve grown to love each bear more each day though Sigalung never cease to grab my attention. On my last day, he wouldn’t move cages when the keeper called him to until I tried, and he did! Got me a little touched~ I even got to join Ronnie boy’s release attempt into Pen G and both adult males, Bermuda and Om, cage by cage integration in training pen G and H. I feel so honoured to be given the chance to help with the observation for the cage by cage as well as body contact integration of Phin and Wan-Wan, Mamatai and Phin, Linggam and the 5 bachelorettes as well as Chin with Logan and Romolina.
However, Bermuda’s tongue got ripped slightly during an observation process. Although I did not get to join the surgery to suture his tongue, I got to join in a health check of a special case bear, Diana, who has a hole punctured on her snout due to past brawl with another male bear, on my last day of volunteering. It was my first ever health check that I got to join and my first ever experience being this close to the bears that I ever love so dearly. I am so thankful to Lin May and Dr Boon for guiding me, giving me exposure to clinical stuff and to help assist in the health check. I took a few moments to myself, feeling overwhelmed, at the opportunity that some may not appreciate. Looking at Diana, observing her every feature, her ears, snout, her paws and her claws, her chestmark and her fur. It got me thinking about how precious these creatures are and how people would be misled by the exotic pet trade black market. I will remember this and fight for my dreams to become a wildlife warrior as well, like all these people at the centre. Sun bears deserve to live in the wild and embrace the riches of the land, untouched!
I even got to sit for Dr Boon’s dental health talk with the other volunteers and staffs as well as Bithrenley’s talk and interesting demonstration on the dangers of forest fires. I got to gain new knowledge in a fun learning environment with all the bear house team who never cease to slip in a few jokes to keep the mood up! I truly applaud this initiative as the keepers get to practice their communication skill and learn to engage with the public or future volunteers.
Dr Wong was pretty busy the whole time I was here, but I expected this from our ‘Papa bear’ who’s working hard! Nevertheless, when he was at the centre, he would come down to check on the operations at the bear house and I was thankful he was willing to give his time and sit through a one-on-one session with me where I can talk about my plans for future in this field! He gave me great advices and welcomed me warmly whenever I felt like coming back to the centre in future.
Every lunch time, I would spend my time mingling around with the education team at the visitor centre or in the office and sometimes sneak a nap in the staff room when it’s raining outside. It’s very heart-warming and lovely to be around like-minded people, they give my quiet personality a boost in mood filled with laughters and silly jokes!
Each day of working at the centre reminds me to be grateful to mother Earth and our creator for all the treasures of the forest. There are always little miracles to be thankful for and little surprises that made my stay much more interesting and memorable. From macaques chasing after me and the visitors coming back from lunch at the Gelugob bridge up till the visitor centre, to them greeting us with loud stomps on the bear house’s roof trying to steal food, even disturbing our observation process of Ronnie boy’s release attempt into Pen G and eating apples and bananas off of me and Alicia’s honeycomb enrichment. Sometimes orangutans would sit close to the railings near the roof and give us puppy eyes or peep into the bear house kitchen watching our every move as we prepare food for the bears. Since it’s supposedly monsoon season here in Borneo, we expect lots of snakes around the forest enclosure. There was one time, David spotted a blood python near the quarantine area while it was drizzling out. I will miss the sounds of hornbill calls greeting us in the morning and when the day’s work is done, spotting pill millipedes with Alicia, playing with Nithisha’s friend, the tractor millipede, and helping Andy with his mission to save the fish that got into our drain system! Gonna miss checking on the bears every evening when its feeding time to see who did not return to the bear house. The usual suspects are Kala, Cerah and Jelita ! I will miss each and every bear at the centre, they deserve the very best life that people had stolen from them!
I am beyond thankful to Lin May and Thye Lim who made me feel welcomed, sharing stories, guiding, looking after me and giving me advice. Thank you Dr Boon for teaching me new things and guiding me. To Pradeep, thank you for your advice and for teaching me new things every day at the bear house. To all the bear keepers and the maintenance staffs, you guys are the best and working at the bear house will be less fun without you all! Thank you for guiding, helping, teaching and looking after volunteers like me! To the education staff, I feel so welcomed because of you guys, thank you from the bottom of my heart for all the shared laughter and conversations! I will miss everything about the centre but will surely come back in future!