Text by Alicia Paula
Photos by Chiew Lin May
This is my third time in a row for the past 3 years of volunteering in BSBCC, things are ever-changing, and I am experiencing a lot of new things. One of the new things is the new Platform 2. In 2018, heavy rain and strong wind blew down few big trees and Platform 2 was severely damaged by the fallen trees. When I came back this year and went to BSBCC for the safety induction, I instantly went up to the new Platform 2 to check it out, and it looked pretty good! The other new thing that I noticed, are the number of new staffs that have joined the BSBCC family. Having more bear-keepers certainly helps especially in Bear House 1, outside feeding and kitchen tasks. Talking about tasks, the new bear diet and the list of food distribution among 15 pens, definitely made me take a few steps back…LITERALLY! The ‘Food Quantity’ table is huge, with four feedings in total. Their diets are categorized into fruits, leafy vegetables, starchy vegetables and others (dog biscuit). The food distribution now is more detailed and more complex than before, all differently accommodating to the bear’s nutritional needs. Amaco and Wan-Wan have their own tray of soft foods, only a handful of bears gets porridge and some of them gets cooked chicken, while the rest of the bears get fruits, veggies, and sprouted mung bean. The task to distribute the fruits into 15 buckets is quite confusing at first, but with the help of my buddy, Mizuno, I managed to get a hang of it in just a couple of days. Making and distributing enrichments such as ice block, roll-treat, and egg carton are always a getaway to have a chit-chat with the staffs and volunteers together.
Me and my buddy Mizuno, also made an enrichment for Panda and Chin to play with. We made an enrichment called ‘Rolling Log’, by propping up two inverted ‘V’s and shoving a long metal bar through the log. Placing the log with the metal bar onto the inverted ‘V’, to make it turn when it is clawed and rolled by the bears. Me and Mizuno smeared some peanut butter onto the log, so the bears could use their strong long claws to roll the log. Surprisingly, both bears completely demolished the log off the metal bar in less than 3 days. I figured it’s because the trunk of the log was wet through and could easily fall apart.
Other than duties in the bear house, I was given the chance to participate in bear health checks along with Dr. Boon, Lin May, and Pradeep. It was my first time assisting in the health check, so I took my time to observe the procedures to carry out the health check. I was first assigned with taking and writing down the temperature of the bear every five minutes and was told to notify them when the temperature has any drastic changes. Lin May wanted me to learn how to use the stethoscope to count the bear’s heartbeat. It was really hard to find the heartbeat’s rhythm, and I gave up after some time. Pradeep and Lin May assured me that it is challenging to pinpoint the bear’s heartbeat, in a room filled with beeping sounds and the sounds of the small polishing machine on the bear’s tooth. After that, I returned the stethoscope to Pradeep, and continued to take temperature from the bear.
I also got the chance to join Dr. Boon, to assist her in neutering some cats and dogs in SPCA Sandakan. I joined her twice, first time is with Dr. Boon and Andy, second time was with Nithisha. We mainly helped her with passing the tools and preparing medications, while she did the neutering surgery on the cats and dogs. Observing the procedure was definitely not for the weak stomach. After injecting the anaesthetics, some of the cats threw up. The neutering also involved stitching, and being very generous with the alcohol solution as a disinfectant.
Another thing that I noticed, is when all the BSBCC staffs brought their own food container to eat for lunch. On my first day of volunteering, I had to go and grab lunch at the cafeteria because I did not prepare any food for lunch to be kept in my container. On the next day, I slowly started to make a commitment to cook for lunch, its either I cook the night before or wake up early the next day to prepare it early in the morning. Me not being a morning person, I prepared my lunch the night before. Another method of packing lunch is when eating out for dinner. Every time Thye Lim and Lin May went out for dinner together with the Bjorn Hala family, they would always bring a basket with their food containers inside. When ordering, they would also order food for lunch to be eaten the next day, and they would also ask the hawker to pack the food into the container, instead of using plastic or styrofoam container. Other staffs also brought their own container to pack their lunch, whenever they feel a little lazy to cook it. After seeing that, I got inspired of how they are contributing their efforts to reducing plastic waste in everyday doings. The next dinner that we had together, I brought my own container as well. Knowing that my lunch from the restaurant is not plastic or styrofoam packaged, made me feel really good. Even though my actions are small, it is better than no contribution at all.
~ Self-reflection ~
Coming back to BSBCC to volunteer for the third time, allows me to comeback to myself after a year of continuing my studies. I am a person that really loves outdoor adventures and always having craving to enjoy what the Earth provides. Having my hands and eyes on my laptop and my phone for most of the time, is really straining to the eyes and not really a good way to replace free time with electronics.
Volunteering in BSBCC does not only gets me distracted from my phone, but also helped me to build some muscle strength and stay in shape. I could carry a bag of sweet potato in each hand, carrying it up from outside the bear house and walking all the way up to the kitchen, without dropping or dragging the bag on the floor. Volunteering in BSBCC also teaches me about not being afraid with our common invertebrate visitors, such as the Pill-millipede and the Tractor-millipede. With some help, I managed to gain confidence to let these cute and harmless invertebrates to crawl onto my hand. It definitely tickles at first, but soon got used to it.
Along with the friendly and easy-going staffs of BSBCC, really made the experience more worthwhile. Random laughing moments everywhere I go, even at the simplest things. The day never goes by without something to talk or to laugh about. For some examples, Kala is still being sensitive and does not want to return into her night den, one of the staff found a blood python near Quarantine area, young macaques managed to come into the bear house and stole a lot of dog biscuits, a free-roaming Orangutan chilling on top of the training pens of Bear House 2, and many more. What is there to regret when gaining volunteering experience in BSBCC, nothing!
Text by Nithisha Nair
Photos by Nithisha Nair & Chiew Lin May
After only a week after my internship, I decided it wouldn’t be the last time I’ll be in BSBCC, I got my money saved and bought my tickets almost immediately, and once finals were over, thus began my two weeks volunteering in BSBCC.
I’m Nithisha, a 20-year-old from Selangor, and I am obsessed with this place.
I’m not exaggerating when I say this environment feels a lot like ‘home away from home’, I’ve missed all the familiar faces, whether it be the staff, the bears or even the dogs back in Bjorn Hala. Even more so now with the addition of new friendly faces like Bithrenley and Danny.
As an intern, the schedules and procedures- especially for feeding, were systematically always changing over the period of my internship. So, coming back after over 4 months, there were plenty of obvious changes for me to catch up to.
It’s always interesting coming to understand why the diet is shaped a certain way or why they do certain things around here. This time around, the bear house team even got the chance to sit through a dental lecture with Dr. Boon to understand the dental checks that she carries out on the bears, and hopefully will be able to carry out on the bears annually. It was really fun understanding and counting up the canines and the molars of the bears.
My favourite part of our bear house duties has always been feeding, I love seeing every bear’s different ways of foraging and eating.
Not to mention all of the enrichments we make on the daily to occupy and keep our bears happy, new enrichments that I got to make this time included the happy sack and a ‘frozen salad’ ice block
I even got to assist in making a divider between two training pens to allow two male bears to be able to venture out at the same time without engaging in a growling match. Making the divider involved cutting zinc into perfectly sized measurements, painting them and attaching them in between two training pens.
During my volunteering, I received the pleasure of getting Boboi (Jeniur Justin) as my buddy, he’s a pleasure to be around and will never leave you in any state but happy. Thank you for guiding me and letting me tag along these two weeks boboi, your efforts goes a long way of imprinting itself in my memories.
To summarize my two weeks volunteering, it was wonderful. I even got to know Alicia and Amanda who were both also return volunteer/ interns just like me! Every single staff played a huge role in making my stay special and memorable, I don’t always admit it but they are who I’ll miss the most leaving this place. A million thank you’s and a million more wouldn’t be enough to describe how thankful I have to have gotten a chance to do my internship here and now volunteer here.
When the time and place is right, I truly hope to be able to come back and volunteer again someday, till then,
Text by Sajidah Khadijah Meor Mohammad Fared
Photos by Sajidah Khadijah Meor Mohammad Fared & Chiew Lin May
Hi! My name is Saji (short for Sajidah Khadijah) and I’m a first year veterinary student from University Putra Malaysia. I am a self-proclaimed nature lover and an aspiring wildlife enthusiast. I am truly, truly stoked (and GRATEFUL) to be given this opportunity to do my industrial training at BSBCC. I could barely contain my excitement and the urge to explore everything around me during my 2-weeks stay and thus, I’ve compiled a list of the things I did and experienced throughout this journey.
9 First Things I Did & Never Regretted: -
1. hopped on a plane to Borneo for the sake of the world’s smallest (and CUTEST) bears alive! This is my first time volunteering in BSBCC and hopefully not my last <3
I get that they’re cute but they ARE NOT naturally domesticated to become pets! Kudos to BSBCC for giving these rescued Bornean sun bears a second chance at being rehabilitated back into the wild.
2. encountered orang utans, elephants, macaques and of course sun bears all within the same day (there are other animals worth mentioning as well but these are the most common creatures you are bound to meet/hear/get peed on during volunteering hours! One time, I was doing a forest feeding with my buddy keeper and a macaque peed on me as it was perching on top of a tree. I already smelt bad (because of perspiration) so I didn’t really mind. Disclaimer: these wild animals are of course just for see, not for touch!
3. visited the centre’s bear cemetery, which is located in a pretty good spot surrounded by the lush canopy of the forest and unbeknownst to the public. It was a very poignant moment for me as I paid my respects. They were gone, but not forgotten. Rest in peace dear ones.
4. did enrichments for the sun bears. This serves as a way for them to cope with the stress or boredom of being in captivity for a long time. Some of the bears here will never be released and it’s due to the fact that they have found security within the walls of the bear house. They are afraid and reluctant of stepping out of their comfort zone and so, it is vital that we provide them with enrichments to nurture their natural behaviour such as foraging, digging, clawing, climbing and such. I was assigned to take care of Amaco with the guidance from my buddy, Adneen. He is the oldest bear in the centre as he is about 26 years old. I’ve been told that their typical lifespan in the wild is about 15-18 years but because they are well taken care of when in captivity, they can reach up to 30 years of age!
Each of the bears have their own personality and as for Amaco, he is the typical “orang tua” or old man in the bear house. He’s a picky eater, doesn’t really want to stand up on his 2 hind paws and so my buddy built this structure that would help Amaco to stand up and at the same time, forage for special treats (hint: bananas and mealworm. Yum)
This structure was built by my buddy. I stuffed the Aussie dog ball with some bananas, egg carton, ginger leaves, meal worm and a drizzle of honey for Amaco’s enrichment.
This was literally taken on my first day of volunteering. It felt nice to just mingle about with the other volunteers as we made enrichments for the bears.
I sliced some apples and placed them onto a sack cloth and dusted some curry powder on it. This is a form of sensory enrichment in which the bears will be able to sniff out the curry and try to get the apples from the sack.
5. assisted a team of veterinarians performing a health check on Logan, one of the trio of the youngest bears in the bear house. I basically helped my buddy keeper to carry the sedated bear to the Sepilok Orang Utan Clinic where they conducted the check-up and tooth extraction. Also, I attended the check-up on a 13-year-old male orang utan named Ceria on the next day. Thank you so much Lin May for allowing me to attend these 2 sessions as I could get a glimpse of what wildlife veterinarians do! <3
6. extracted incisors from a dead dog! This was one of the most exciting things I’ve experienced as a vet student so far. Basically, Dr Anwar and Dr Serena from Singapore were assisting us on how to extract canine teeth because some of the bears here have poor dental hygiene because of their diet and so the residential vet will need to perform dental care for the sun bears.
7. learnt to become more competent in the kitchen. Meal preparation for 43 bears is tough as heck! From weighing the food, to chopping and slicing and rinsing them clean and even boiling them, I honestly salute the keepers for being able to do this efficiently, even without having extra helping hands on some days.
The bears are fed with an omnivorous diet which mainly consisted of starchy vegetables and fruits like bananas, pumpkins, sweet potatoes and carrots. They are also given local fruits such as rambutan and langsat. Some bears are fed chicken meat and boiled eggs to increase their body condition scoring because they are too skinny.
My biggest achievement was being able to chop the watermelons, sweet potatoes and pumpkins and I even deboned the chicken once! For someone who spends minimal time in the kitchen, volunteering at BSBCC has surely changed me for the better.
8. my buddy taught me how to saw wood!! It was frustrating at first because I wasn’t getting through with the sawing but Adneen and Roger showed me that perseverance do go a long way and so, I managed to saw wood for one of the enrichments. HOORAY! After sawing the wood, we drilled holes onto them and I stuck some bits of apple into the holes and smeared peanut butter all over. The wood pieces were either thrown overhead into the bear enclosure or I went in and placed the wood on the hammock or on the floor for the bears to play with.
Okay so these are the peeps who taught me so many invaluable things while working in the bear house: Adneen (my buddy), Roger, Azzry and Brandon. They have guided me through cleaning the enclosures, forest feeding, meal preparation and my favourite part which is making the enrichments.
This is by far my favourite enrichment, Stuffed Log. It was fun sawing wood but let’s face it, I am no where near to becoming a lumberjack.
9. went cave hiking and cruising at the Kinabatangan River! I had a day off so I hired a local guide to take me out for some insane adventure time! Gua Batu Tulug and Gua Gomantong are must-visited places!
Full time job: Veterinary student.
Part time job: Dora the Explorer
Shot taken at the peak of Agup Batu Tulug
Archaeological findings of coffins from the old age.
The Cave of Wonders (aka Gomantong Cave). It is the most popular site to find bird’s nest in Sabah.
In a nutshell, I’m glad I spent my semester break here in Borneo. It truly is a beautiful place imbued with the natural rainforests, humble and kind local people and home to the cutest bears alive.
Shot taken behind Bjorn Hala (staff quarters) and where I had built my temporary nest for 2 weeks. Thanks again for having me BSBCC! <3 <3 <3
Text By Khairunnisa binti Mohd Faisal
Photos By Khairunnisa binti Mohd Faisal, Chiew Lin May & Seng Yen Wah
Hi there! I’m Aniss, an intern student from Universiti Sains Malaysia, Penang. Choosing BSBCC as my internship placement is one of the bravest decision I have ever made. A week before I flew to Sandakan, I had a major mental breakdown because I was so anxious since I will be so far away from home and I literally had neither friends nor family in Sandakan. “Will I survive working in the middle of jungle?”, “How if I only managed to make it halfway?”, “How can I go back to Kuala Lumpur if homesick hits me?”, “Who will help me if I’m in a big trouble?”. So many things lingered on my mind and I felt so terrible to leave Peninsular for 2 months.
As I arrived in Sandakan, I was warmly greeted by BSBCC staff. I felt so happy and safe to be around them. On my first day of working, it was really tiring since I had to digest a lot of things about the working ethics, the bear’s diet, bear’s behavior, pen names in the forest enclosure and the bear’s name. I started to doubt my ability of working in BSBCC as I felt like it’s such a huge responsibility to take care of the bears.
As time goes by, I never thought that I will be super happy and enjoy working for the bears. BSBCC makes me have a clearer vision of how ‘conservation’ really works. In BSBCC, I got the chance to experience a lot of things that I have never done before. I got to clean the bear house, prepare their daily feeding, make enrichment for the bears, join bear’s health check, go hunt for termite mound, explore the forest while find logs for structural enrichment and join educational program. And I never expect that I’d able to recognize some of the bears after working 2 months in here.
Thank you so much to my Bjorn Hala family (Boboy, Natalie, Becca, Mizuno, Wawa, Dr. Boon, Andy, Laurelle and Saji – including Lin May and Thye Lim). Ever since my first day in here, I’ve always feel like home. I will never forget each of the fond memories that we all had together. I had a wonderful moment of us singing together after work, going around the town during off day, eating steamboat at Sim Sim, food hunting at night, cooking while karaoke-ing together, hiking during off day, watching movies, singing to patriotic songs in the car, chasing the dogs and sharing life experience with each other. Honestly, I believe that these are the people that I’m going to miss the most once I’m back to KL.
Here’s my buddy, Adrian. On our first met, he didn’t talk much but as time goes by, he’s becoming the most annoying person I’ve ever met hahahaha. Thank you Adrian for taking care of me for these 2 months and taught me a lot of stuffs about sun bears. Honestly, you’re such a really good buddy and I’m really happy to have you as my assigned buddy. I’m sorry for being a clumsy, annoying, mischievous and talk active buddy. I will always remember everything that we have done for the bears throughout my internship in BSBCC. Please don’t miss me when I’m gone HAHAHA.
A week before I’m leaving BSBCC, we built a new ramp for Panda release. A huge thank you to Adrian for helping me out to build this ramp. Without him, I won’t be able to make it happen. Also, thank you to Ijam and Boboy for being a part of this project as well! J To Ijam and Boboy, you both are the funniest human being I have ever met. Thank you for cheering me up throughout my stay in here. Even though you both can be really annoying sometimes, I truly enjoyed having you guys around.
I’m sure I’m going to miss the moment we hunt for banana leaves together. It was so fun being in a car ride with you guys. While enjoying the scenery around Sepilok, they shared a lot of stuffs about their childhood. It’s so good to listen how each of us being raised with a different background.
Farewell party before leaving BSBCC. Thank you Mizuno for helping us out to cook for our farewell party. I feel very reluctant to leave this place. 2 months of internship feels so short for me. I really wish I could extend my internship period in BSBCC.
Sometimes, taking a one brave step could be one of the best things you have ever done in your life. It’s such a blessing to be here. I never regret my decision choosing BSBCC as my internship placement. Even though I don’t really like getting messed up in the middle of jungle, this has turned out to be the best memory I have ever had in my life. To my favourite bear (Jelita), I hope I’ll get to see you again one day. If God wills, one day I’ll come back to Sandakan to take care of the bears again. Thank you so much BSBCC for having me. Love, Aniss Faisal.
Text and Photos by Chiew Lin May
Huge Thanks to Anton Ngui for the generous donation of rambutan fruits to help the rescued sun bears. These enrichment rambutan branches treat makes the bears cherished. They love this surprise moment!
Thank you for your support again, Anton!
Please continue to support us by adopting, donating, spread the word or buy a gift of love https://www.bsbcc.org.my/adopt.html
Text and Photos by Chiew Lin May
Due to the limited trees in one of our forest enclosures, we plan to construct a new platform structure to give the bears a cool, shady place during hot summer days. The platform structure will be a favourite for the sun bears, being the site for snoozes, foraging and wrestles. Through this platform structure, the bears will have enough space and the freedom to do as they please.
The team will focus on designing and carrying the iron wood (hardest wood), building the foundation, mixing cement, chiselling, sawing and hammering…plus some digging! It is brilliant and fun for everyone who takes part!
Despite the hot weather, they did a great job. They showed a value for teamwork and a strong sense of humour. When the construction was finished, staff and volunteers added on some enrichment –like dead wood, and a climbing structure so that the sun bears have plenty of opportunities to exercise - it encourages their natural behaviour and stimulates their body and mind. The sun bears can continue exploring and make as much mess as they like!
The vital work, which has changed BSBCC’s sun bears lives, was made possible by volunteer donations and the effort of numerous compassionate volunteers from around the world. Thank you to all your support, it really does make a difference and BSBCC could not have achieved this without your help.
Text By Lim Hui Wen
Photos By Seng Yen Wah
I am Hui Wen, a 19 year old Malaysian currently studying Anthropology at University College London (UCL) in the UK.
I learnt about BSBCC through the Roots & Shoots Malaysian Award program, endorsed by Jane Goodall, a program which encourages Malaysian Youth to connect to the environment through volunteering at various organizations. Previously, I volunteered at a turtle sanctuary at a small island called Lang Tengah off the East Coast of Malaysia, right next to Redang Island. Having enjoyed learning a lot about turtles and their environment, it piqued my interest in volunteering with other animals. Hence, for my next volunteering opportunity, out of the many organizations offered, I chose to volunteer at BSBCC and spend three weeks of my summer here in Sabah because I want to learn more about the sun bears life as well as how a conservation center functions. Right now, I am at the tail end of my three weeks here and so far my experience here has been phenomenal.
Just by volunteering here, my knowledge of the sun bears, their behaviour, and the conservation center now exceeds the informational plaques scattered around the visitor center. From the questions I have asked Dr Wong and the others working here, one of the many things I now know is the role of the government and the laws regarding sun bears and other endangered animals. On top of that, I also know the history and habits of some of the bears as well as their personality.
Volunteering here, I thought that I would only be doing some basic work such as working in the kitchen, cleaning the bear house, and making enrichment to entertain the bears. I never would have imagined that I will get the amazing opportunity to observe and assist in the health check-up of a sun bear, recording Jelita’s pulse, temperature and respiration, while the doctors clean a wound behind her ear.
Though I will be sad to leave the sun bears and the people here who have helped me learn the ropes and accompanied for the past few weeks, I will not be sad leaving the leeches behind! (I really hate leeches). This invaluable experience has allowed me to do things that I would have never seen myself doing – Jelita’s health check-up – but has more importantly reminded me to conserve and respect the environment we live in, as well as to strive and protect the environment and the creatures that live in and rely on it.
Text by Natalie Lian Qian Wei (Intern Student, University Science Malaysia)
Photos by Natalie Lian Qian Wei & Chiew Lin May
Enrichment come in the forms of toys or treats for animals. Although it may look like something insignificant, this is not true at all! Enrichment are especially vital for bears that were previously kept as pets and were rescued, as these bears were unable to learn essential survival skills. Enrichment encourage them to exhibit natural bear behaviours, such as climbing, foraging, and digging.
In BSBCC, there are five types of enrichment which are enclosure enrichment, foraging enrichment, sensory enrichment, novel objects, and social enrichment.
Enclosure enrichment are structures that allow for activities such as climbing and resting. In BSBCC, these enrichment are made of materials such as tyres, firehoses, and woods.
Foraging enrichment are food-based enrichment that help to enhance the bears’ foraging skills. Fruits and spice powder can be wrapped in plant materials such as ginger leaves or wrapped in cardboard papers. Peanut butter can be smeared between a few attached sticks.
Sensory enrichment help to sharpen the senses of bears, such as gustation and olfaction
Novel object enrichment provide bears with the opportunity to explore and play with new items.
Social enrichment encourages social interaction between bears. It is good to have friends!
Enrichment are very important as they help to reduce boredom and stress. When the bears are bored or stressed, pacing can be observed and the bears will move in a stereotypic motion. Enrichment can help to keep them occupied and contented.
New ideas of enrichment are always welcomed! Yet, bear in mind that there are also a few factors that need to be taken into consideration. An enrichment must always be safe for the bears, thus we need to avoid sharp objects and toxic plants. To make an enrichment, we must also first observe the behaviour of the bears, so that we know what is suitable for them. For example, wood can be given to bears that have long claws, to encourage them to dig and at the same time help to wear down their claws.
I believe satisfaction can be felt when the bears enjoy the enrichment that we made for them, not forgetting to mention that they look so cute when they are playing or eating! Preparing enrichment is actually a fun activity for the keepers and volunteers too.
Dear readers, I hope you will be able to get an idea of what enrichment are, thank you for reading!
Text and Photos by Chiew Lin May
Huge thanks to Balai Bomba Dan Penyelamat Sandakan with the help of Ketua Balai Bomba, Tuan Jimmy Lagung and his team for donating fire hoses to sun bears!! Fire hose provides wonderful enrichment to sun bears! We will going to making difference types of fire hose enrichment for the bears to enjoy!
They have a fire hose pocket for digging, bear balls to play with, honey comb to promoting naturalistic behaviours, simple braided browser for swing, hammock made a great support for laying and SO much more!
The bears bark a big thanks for the new gift and making their day special!
What can we possibly make with this fire hose - lets see lot of cute pictures!
Text by Vivian Lee Ker Chuon
Photos by Vivian Lee Ker Chuon & Chiew Lin May
Hi there! My name is Dr Vivian Lee and I am a Malaysian veterinarian from the state of Penang. I first found out about the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre when I attended a talk by Dr Wong Siew Te, who is the founder of BSBCC. Over the years I have followed the work of him and his team and heard many good things. I finally decided to make the trip and volunteer for two weeks, and I’m really glad I did, because the last two weeks have been amazing!
This is my first time to Sabah, and BSBCC were kind enough to pick me up from the Sandakan airport. It’s easy to figure out who is picking you up because they will have a sunbear shirt on. It’s all about the sunbears here. I was greeted by a smiling Azzry, who pointed out the sights to me on the way to the centre. Once there, we proceeded to do a security briefing (in short, be careful of macaques and orangutans), and then I had a quick tour of the centre before I went to Bjorn Hala with my housemates for the next two weeks.
The next day, I started my first official day at BSBCC. I met my buddy keeper, Roger, and assisted him with his tasks. We were assigned to Bear House 1 that first day, and I worked up a really good sweat! Cleaning up after 43 bears is a lot of work, but I enjoyed giving my muscles a good workout. I really do feel a lot fitter after these two weeks. Whilst working in the bear house, I started getting to know each of the individual bears, as each of them has a very distinct personality. You can tell that the staff at BSBCC really care a lot about their bears and the work that they do. The keepers know what each bear likes and dislikes, what health issues they might have, which bear is friends with which other bear, which bear won’t eat their veggies, which bear won’t come back home at night because they’re having too much fun playing in their enclosure, and which bear likes to break all the branches off the tree they’re climbing. After two weeks, I can only identify maybe 3-4 bears by sight, but ask any keeper and they’ll be able to tell you which bear is which.
After all the cleaning tasks are done, we get to do one of my favourite tasks, which is feeding. I don’t think I will ever get tired of watching the bears crunch through a juicy carrot or chase after a coconut. Most of the bears, except the ones with dental disease which I’ll talk about later, get a diet of raw green veggies and fruits, with some starchy foods like raw sweet potato and pumpkin as well. The bears love fruit the most, enjoying things like watermelon, honeydew, bananas, papaya, and this interesting little fruit called snake fruit or salak, which to me looks like a little pangolin. Most of them won’t say no to a leaf of Chinese lettuce or a cucumber either. As a little treat or for positive reward training, the bears go nuts over a dab of peanut butter, Marmite or honey.
The afternoons are mostly devoted to creating enrichment for the bears. I got to develop my non-existent carpentry skills, doing sawing, drilling, tightening screws and putting together a structure for one of the pens. The keepers are very skilled at providing motivational support for volunteers, hence even though I was a bit hesitant at first, by the end I was happily sawing and hammering away. During Hari Raya, we even made ketupat stuffed with apple and peanut butter for a festive sunbear treat!
I was happy to be able to assist Dr Yeoh Boon Nie, BSBCC’s resident veterinarian, on the days when she was conducting a few annual health checks for some of the bears. We also took the opportunity to conduct dental scaling and polishing of the bears teeth as well. I’ve only ever done dental scaling and polishing for dogs and cats, so this was very interesting for me. Some of the older bears have been eating a soft, cooked diet for a long time, and as such, their teeth weren’t in a great condition. Bears in captivity also live a lot longer than bears in the wild, due to the provision of a steady source of food and absence of dangers in the wild. Thus their teeth have to last a lot longer. As their human carers, we have a responsibility to make sure that they are as healthy and as comfortable as possible.
After sedating the bear, we brought them to the clinic where they were intubated and maintained on a gas anaesthetic whilst we performed the procedure. I also jumped at the chance to be able to place an intravenous catheter in a sunbear (they have really thick skin!). After ensuring that the anaesthetic was stable, we proceeded to do the dental charting, scaling and polishing. Seeing the bears shiny clean and polished teeth after each procedure was very gratifying. Besides the dental, the bears were also given a physical examination, blood was drawn for an annual health screen, and things like overgrown nails were addressed.
I found the volunteer program at BSBCC to be very well rounded, as I got to experience so many different aspects of this organization in my two weeks here, gaining an understanding of how the group works as a whole. Everyone from the bear care team to the education team and the maintenance guys always have a smile for you and are more than happy to have a chat and share their considerable knowledge. I thoroughly enjoyed chatting to Gloria and Jerome about managing visitors (and macaques!) up on the viewing platforms, with Mizuno and Boboy about jungle trekking and night walks, with Thye Lim and Lin May about their exploits in the Tabin reserve, with Azzry about growing up taking care of orangutans, with Wawa about different sunbear personalities, and Dr. Boon on sunbear health and management. Dr. Wong himself even makes it a point to set aside time out of his busy schedule to have chats with volunteers, and you can ask him anything. He has 20 years of experience and lots of helpful advice to share. Two weeks is barely enough to scratch the surface of all there is to learn here. I also had the best time together with my new friends at Bjorn Hala, going out to sample a selection of the best food Sandakan has to offer, night walks to see wildlife, attending Hari Raya open houses, hiking up Bukit Sim Sim and admiring the view of the fishing village, singing in the car, and tasting each other’s cooking. It’s been a great experience and I would love to come back again for another visit.