The month of August meant the start of the volunteering experience for six new volunteers and the start of an easier two week for the keepers who now had 6 pairs of eager hands to help them with everything and anything. The first week started with lots of paperwork and some briefs before the volunteers got to pick their t-shirts for the next two weeks, wearing BSBCC and APE Malaysia shirts ensured everyone can be identified as a member of staff and prevents people misunderstanding why we are closer to the bears than they are. It is also pretty fun picking out which t-shirt you want.
The next day we were straight into the bear house – the place the bears are kept overnight or if they are poorly or in quarantine – and straight into shovelling poop. With the amount the bears eat, the cages need cleaning every morning and as the simplest job, it’s the one you begin with (after a demonstration first, of course). The first week consisted of a lot of cage cleaning and food preparation. The bears get fed four times a day with various different fruit and veg, designed to mimic as closely as possible what they would find in the wild, but with 43 bears it means a lot of chopping up. As one volunteer commented, ‘I’ve spent three hours chopping pumpkin and the ungrateful creatures haven’t even bothered eating it.’ It was fairly obvious after a couple of days that the Sun Bears’ favourite food is anything sweet; they definitely earn their nickname of Honey Bear.
The afternoons were a bit different and involved a bit more creative thought. The majority of the bears sleep inside their cages at night and to stop them getting stressed, they need activities to do before they fall asleep – think the bear version of the games on your phone. This is called enrichment and can be anything you can think of that will keep the bears busy and allow them to develop useful skills for when they are released. The Sun Bears’ best sense is their nose so we sometimes collected sticks to create bundles or plants to make into packets or banana leaves but we would always fill the bundle with something that smelled delicious, a particular favourite seemed to be peanut butter. We also went out to collect them coconuts and some of use even tried to limb the coconut tree just like one of the keepers, albeit much less successfully. Another good way to keep the sick bears entertained was to smear peanut butter on the tyres in their cages and watch them use all their muscles and their extremely long tongue to get it out. We even helped to build a platform in Romolina and Joe’s enclosure to give them somewhere to rest when it gets too hot in the day as their enclosure simply doesn’t have enough shade. Whilst hard work, building a platform was one of the most satisfying tasks because we knew it would be enhancing a bear’s life for a very long time.
As the second week began, everyone was a bit more comfortable with what needed to be done and was able to get it done a bit faster each day. Most of us could even weigh the bananas out without scales having done it so many times. But familiarity is good, it meant that we were starting to understand how to properly look after the bears. It also meant that we had the time to create our own ideas for how to improve the cages for the bears so we went out to the forest to source a log that we could turn into a play area for Amaco to encourage her to stand up and climb.
On top of the daily enrichment, feeding and husbandry tasks, we were also lucky enough to all get to help out with a health check on a bear and most of us helped with at least two, taking the temperature, pulse and heart rate whilst the vet checked the bear over and cleaning its teeth. It was such a privilege to get so close to such a beautiful animal and I finally got to answer my question about the feel of the fur (spoiler: like a coarse dog).
Unsure of what exactly to expect, the volunteering experience at BSBCC consistently exceeded my expectations. The staff who work with the bears truly want what is best for both the bears and their country and are constantly striving to release the bears into the wild as well as educate enough people about the dangers of deforestation and poaching. On top of their core tasks, they make the time to work with the volunteers to make sure they experience all the different aspects of the centre and are enjoying themselves. It was the staff and other volunteers that made the experience so special and I would recommend it to anyone who was thinking about it. Thank you for your time and expertise BSBCC and thank you for having us.