Text and Photos by Lavinia Spimpolo
I’m Lavinia Spimpolo, 26 years old, and I have just completed my first volunteer experience at the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre. I am Italian and I have a background in Art. After I graduated, I decided to do what I have always wanted to do: work and spend time with animals.
As a new volunteer, the first thing that the BSBCC keepers told us upon entering the bear house, was that whilst inside the bear house, the bears would be able to smell you and feel your presence. This can cause the bears to become stressed and start pacing. Knowing this, I made sure to say hello to each bear as I passed by the front of their cages, allowing them to hear the calm tone of my voice so they knew I wasn’t a threat to them.
Every activity that I was involved in, including collecting dry leaves to make the cages more comfortable, I thoroughly enjoyed. The temperatures were high and the humidity was higher, and even though I got bitten by fire ants, I loved knowing that what I was doing was making the bear’s lives more comfortable.
When cutting up fruit for the bears, I made sure to provide them with the best fruit available, making sure none got smashed when throwing them through the bear’s cages. I enjoyed cleaning out the bear’s cages, because I got to be close to them – although I made sure I didn’t pass too close to their cage, as their claws are very long!
Feeding the bears porridge was such a scary experience, because we got so close to them. Once I learnt how to feed them in a safe way, it became one of the most memorable and enjoyable experiences of my life. I was able to feel like a relationship was forming between the bears and I. I would even walk around with the porridge like I was a special waiter with white gloves at a fancy restaurant, offering the bears their specific food.
It was also amazing to walk around the forest enclosure fences and throw fruits, sugar cane and coconuts to the bears. I loved watching them walking around the enclosure, minding their own business, even climbing a tree or playing with each other. I remember walking by the public viewing platform and seeing all the visitors and tourists standing up and taking photos of us working. I felt deeply proud of myself in that moment, because I knew I was doing exactly what I had dreamt of doing for so long; I was working with the most amazing animals.
One of the most remarkable days in the bear house would have to have been when we made a hammock for a sun bear called Natalie. We worked on the hammock for over six hours, making sure the bolt nut were bolted in and that it was all safe for Natalie to play on. I received many mosquito bites, and the heat was making us all sweat like crazy, but in the end it was worth it. We got to see Natalie jump and roll around on the hammock as soon as we put it in her cage. It was a very touching moment, and one that I will remember for a very long time.
Overall, I worked at the centre for seven days (distributed throughout eight weeks). It was not a long period of time, but it was extremely intense, and I learnt more in those seven days than many other courses I have studied over the years. The keepers were absolutely amazing and everyone worked together as a team. It was easy to see that all the keepers loved their job, simply by the way they talked about their bears and the passion that they put into their work. Thank you BSBCC for the amazing experience I was able to be apart of.