Text by Eva Jane Muir
Photos by Chiew Lin May & Seng Yen Wah
Although born wild, freedom does not come naturally to many of the rescued sun bears here at the BSBCC. This is unsurprising however, for these bears have suffered traumatic pasts. Stolen from their mothers when they were young, the feel of the earth beneath their paws is a feeling forgotten for a bear raised in a small, dirty metal cage.
When a rescued sun bear first comes to the BSBCC they are freighted and distrustful, for they are unaware that the people here mean them no harm. However, with time and patience, the bears slowly start to rediscover their freedom. This process has no time limit as each individual bear is unique and pushing too hard may result in more harm than good. Imagine, just how tantalizing yet overwhelming the smell of fresh air must be, to a bear with no recollection of what it is like to live free in the forest. But slowly, each rescued bear will take their first steps into the outside world and begin their journey back to freedom.
A sun bear cub learns many vital survival skills from its mother; however the rescued bears here at the BSBCC have been denied this precious knowledge. Because of this, the BSBCC staff must instead teach these bears everything they need to know in order to survive on their own. This is where enrichment comes in, perhaps the most important stage in the sun bear rehabilitation process.
Enrichment is any object or activity designed to stimulate the sun bears and encourage natural behavior. It comes in many forms and the BSBCC staff must always think of new, creative ideas to keep the bears active and busy. There are four main types of enrichment used here at the BSBCC, these are:
1. Environmental Enrichment: Sun bears are the most arboreal of all bear species, and in the wild they will spend the majority of the day resting and foraging in the tree tops. Although they have spent much of their lives confined in atrocious conditions, many of the rescued sun bears here at the BSBCC still poses that natural desire to climb, a behavior we try to encourage. In addition to providing a large, natural forest enclosure full of perfect climbing trees, all bears are provided with hammocks and climbing frames to allow them to rest off the ground. Although sun bears are very active, the bears can often be spotted snoozing in their hammocks on warm afternoons.
2. Foraging Enrichment: Sun bears are omnivorous; their diets consisting of seasonal fruits and nuts, invertebrates, small animals and their favourite treat of all – honey! Here at the BSBCC we try to think of imaginative ways of providing the bears with their food in order to encourage the natural foraging behaviours they would use in the wild. Commonly used techniques include scattering fruits in the forest enclosure, hiding treats under piles of dry leaves and drilling holes in logs to conceal the food inside. Unless they learn to forage themselves the bears cannot be considered as release candidates, so foraging enrichment is incredibly important for the rescued sun bears.
3. Sensory Enrichment:Sun bears have an extremely sensitive nose and their sense of smell is vital for both finding food and detecting danger in the wild. Sensory enrichment encourages the bears to use their sense of smell by concealing strong smelling treats such as honey or peanut butter in a puzzle or toy. Often, these enrichments are constructed using recycled fire hose or strong plastic as these materials are tough even against the bear’s powerful claws. Alternatively, treats can be hidden in bundles of vegetation held together with vive, creating a very natural enrichment which encourages both sensory and foraging behaviours. All the rescued sun bears at the BSBCC have completely individual personalities, including their own food preferences, so these enrichments can be trailered to specific bears or social groups to get the best bahavioural results.
4. Social Enrichment:Although sun bears are solitary in the wild, we encourage the rescued bears to interact with each other at the BSBCC as we believe the best enrichment of all is another bear. Many of the sun bear form close bonds with one another, and can often be seen playing together or snoozing together in a shared hammock. However, this type of enrichment offers more than simply comfort - it is an important part of the rehabilitation process as it enables the bears to learn survival skills from each other. Additionally, social enrichment is an excellent way of reducing stereotypic behaviors such as pacing and swaying.
Unfortunately, it is simply not possible for all of the rescued sun bears to return to the freedom of the wild. For some, the physical or emotional damage inflicted by humans is just too great. For these bears, enrichment serves a different purpose. It provides comfort, stimulation, interest and a means of displaying all the behaviours which come naturally to them. Although they may never be truly free, the care and enrichment provided to these sun bears by the BSBCC staff allow the bears to live their lives free from pain, fear and suffering, just as they deserve.