Text by Anna Martinsen
Photos by Chiew Lin May
Hello BSBCC Bear Talk Blog!
My name is Anna, I’m 20 years old and have just spend 30 days working as a volunteer at the Bornean Sun bear conservation center. I’m from Denmark, so getting here took a lot of time! In Denmark, I just finished a 1-year dance education and now I’ll be having a gap-year, where I will be working, travelling, dancing, living. I found out about this place because I went here (Sabah) with my mom two years ago, and on the way made a very good friend. Just before I finished my dance education, I found the flyer for the BSBCC volunteer program and decided to just do it..
First week working at the center offered a lot of work in the kitchen! These bears, I tell you, they eat a lot. Chopping up 36 kg of sweet potato or pumpkin, not even to mention the bananas… so many bananas every day. The work in the kitchen is fun when everything is flowing, one person is cutting, another is rinsing, a third is weighing. One time, while I was weighing bananas, a big spider jumped out and onto my shirt. Something you get used to while working here.
Some of the male bears also get porridge with animal proteins, such as cooked chicken, egg, etc. They also get a fair amount of beans, because like human children, they have to eat their greens. They get so excited when they see you with the tray, and even though it is so tempting, you really cannot touch those sweet, furry creatures.
Later on during the first week, we had a presentation from one of the interns, Nathalie and later from Lin May about the sun bears and why we’re doing this work. It was literally heartbreaking to see how people treat these animals. Sun bears are small animals, the size of a big dog, so some locals catch them and keep them as pets. This is bad for several reasons such as:
1) Diet - local people don’t know what a sun bear eats and they feed it like a pet or, if the family is poor, then they’ll feed it with whatever, even with Milo. You can ask about Montoms story.
2) People don’t realize they are wild animals and that they grow bigger and stronger as they become adults.
3) The last thing people might do is poach wild sun bears, is if they believe in traditional medicine and kill it to get the gallbladder, paws, teeth and fur for a variety of uses.
The second week was a bit more “active”. We started a lot of different projects and had a lot of fun. Starting out, the bear house needs to be cleaned daily. This is not as hard or smelly as people make it out to be, but then again I have some experience from working at my aunts farm. First you have to clean out poop, which there’s a lot of, and in a lot of different colors (from their diet). Then we washed out the cage with a lot of water and scrub everything, and finished off with drying the floor.
It’s not just work, work, work. The staff in the bear house are so friendly and fun, so everything becomes more fun. Some of the cages have leaves, logs, enrichment all made/brought in from the staff.
We made a lot of enrichment during 1st and 2nd week. Enrichment is a tool we use to stimulate natural behaviours, like using sense of smell to find delicious food, rip cotton bags apart to get food. A lot of it has to do with using either paws or mouth to get to food in some ways.
While making the enrichment, you’ll get a great opportunity to chat with the keepers (the staff). You talk a lot about what’s different from back home, ask questions about their cultures, things to try, and of course, you learn a bit of Malay. Enrichment can also be sticks or branches, banana leaves and we even went trekking in the jungle for termite nests.
This week and the 3rd also offered bigger projects! In one of the pens they needed to build a platform for the bears to cool down under, play on and use for enrichment. With blood, sweat and tears, we finished the big platform within 1 1\2 weeks! The bears absolutely love the platform now, and they’re often seen sunbathing or playing on it.
During the 2nd and a part of the 3rd week I got to train and observe one of the bears, Sigalung. He is a bear with fear of heights, so we tried to lure him out with food on the platform and then on the steps down to the ground. It was a slow process, but he made some progess. After some observation, Sumira and I decided that the stairs were too steep, and that’s why he is not going down. We talked to my Buddy Keeper (You get “assigned” to a keeper when you start working), Mizuno, and we made some sketches for a ramp that wold make the ground seem less terrifying. We measuared, found supplies and got to work, but just three days after we mounted to skeleton for the ramp, some of the other keepers saw Sigalung on the ground. In his pen. Looking for food. That little jokester played a prank on us, but we still managed to finish the ramp.
During the 3rd and 4th week we still did the usual duties, cleaning, prepping food, building a ramp for Sigalung, but we also got something extra! I got to join some health checks. First one was on a big male, Bermuda, second one was little Chin, third was Mary and fourth was Wan-wan. While doing the check up, as a volunteer, you monitor pulse, respiration and temperature. You also carry the bear from the bear house to the truck and vice versa.
Another memorable health check was Wan-Wan. Wan-wan is 12 years old and has a lot of dental problems, so while doing her dental check, they found out that 7 teeth needed to be extracted otherwise she’d be in too much pain to eat. 7 teeth! Crazy.
This week we also had fun going rambutan picking! It’s like apple picking but with rambutans (like lychees). You get to see the nature, talk with your co-workers and eat rambutans, #perfect. While collecting rambutans, a bird’s nest fell from the tree. A bit later we found the egg and Natalie and I decided to try and rescue the nest, so mama bird could find it.
Before finishing up my rambling about this dreamy work here, I want to mention the people. The people working here all have a heart of gold and are so friendly. We went out to dinners, events, they care about your well-being. If you ever even thought of volunteering, you should do it because of the people!
Biggest, warmest, most loving thanks and bear hugs to everyone here from Anna Banana! I will definitely come back!
Thank you, you’re welcome, goodbye.