Text by Sarah Lourdes
Photos by Jacquelyn Jill Jepiuh
— My unforgettable summer jaunt rolling with the sun bears --
When I made the decision to volunteer at the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC), I had a vague idea of what to expect. It was a measured decision based purely on my love for, one, the rainforest and two, animals. Putting the two together, I thought, would surely be a recipe for a delightful summer. Serendipitously, I got more than I could have asked for.
With induction briefing out of the way, entering the bear house for the first time on day one, I came face-to-face with what was to be my summer love affair 😍. There she was – all four paws up against the grille, baring her strapping furry underbelly was Simone, a beautiful hale and hearty 13-year-old boisterous bear. It was the first time I had laid eyes on a real-life sun bear.
Realising she had a captive audience, Simone proceeded to scale the rails and brachiate in her den with all the aplomb and mastery of a Cirque du Soleil trapeze artiste! And she did it with such ease. Being a fitness enthusiast myself, I was riveted by the agility of this 72-pound beast! 🤩
A few more of this Olympic gold-medal-worthy performance later and it was clear that she was a bear after my own heart.
Now, there’s a lot to love about every bear at the centre, each with their own charm and unique ability to melt your heart one way or another. And I am deeply fond of all of them. But Simone, she was my Jerry Maguire — she had me at hello!
Like an entertainer, Simone loves giving a performance. And I was her biggest fan. You see, hers is the first den you see as you enter the bear house. Without fail, every morning and afternoon, returning to the bear house post-lunch, you would be greeted by this artistic display of her athleticism. Same routine every day, and I never tire of watching her. Secretly, I like to flatter myself and think she was just thrilled to see us. Though in truth, her excitement probably stems from knowing that she would be fed soon! LOL 🤣…… But no matter, roll over Lady Gaga! It was an entrance [and a welcome] unlike any other.
Every bear at BSBCC has a story. And this is Simone’s. Simone was rescued from her former owner who kept her as a domestic pet (outrageous, I know!). While she was not physically abused or mistreated like so many there with tear-jerking backstories, she was unnaturally raised in captivity (read: kept in a cage) for most of her formative years which adversely shaped her outlook. As a result, she has been conditioned to prefer being indoors, which by all accounts, is abnormal behaviour for a bear or any wildlife for that matter.
All volunteers are tasked with designing and creating an enrichment project for his/her chosen bear(s). No surprises, Simone became the subject for my project idea. Given her aversion to going out into the forest, she is robbed of the joy of climbing trees like bears ought to and love doing, foraging for food in what ought to be her natural habitat. I decided to bring a bit of the outdoors indoor to her. With the help of my assigned buddy Dellson — who always had my back, taught me many a great thing about wildlife and everything I needed to know about bear care, and bless him, did all the heavy lifting 🤗 — we erected a “pole” fashioned from the trunk of a fallen tree in her den. Holes were drilled randomly along the trunk, and in them, we stuffed little treats that bears love — banana puree, honey, peanut butter, etc. — designed to encourage her to climb and hunt. Tongue-in-cheek, I named my project “Pole dancing in cell no. 19!” 😁 (#19 is Simone’s den).
I was dead chuffed when she took to it like a crazed hangry bear! 😂… even ripping off some of the bark on the tree trunk trying to get to the hidden treats. Her unofficial moniker by some of the bear keepers is "the destroyer" for a reason. Though I’m happy to report that the pole was still standing at the time I left… with some scrapes and bruises, but still standing 😊.
My two weeks flew by too fast at Concorde speed, during which I learnt much and experienced many firsts, including my first leech bite 😳. Spend enough time with the bears and you’ll learn that these magnificent, intelligent creatures behave a lot like humans; each with their own personality, likes/dislikes, quirks and emotions that they aren’t afraid to show.
Here are some observational humour in the sun bear kingdom. There’s Kudat who loves to taunt you by taking a dump right after you’ve cleaned his den! (No shit! Excuse the pun). Ronnie Boy will refuse to eat his pumpkin unless it’s served to him boiled; not too hard, not too soft, but just right. Sigalung, I think secretly has a crush on Simone, but Simone’s just too cool to care 😂. Linggam the gentle giant, who at 99 lbs is easily one of the largest bears there, yet is always bullied by the female bears two-thirds his size. And of course, we know Simone the showgirl who lives for the applause! 😎. What’s not to love?
It was for me an inspiring and life-affirming experience. Leaving the bear house at the end of my stint, I promised myself that I would be back again for a second chance at another summer love affair… uh, I mean love-a-bear 😊. And the next time, I will be taking the slow train and staying for longer than two weeks.