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Published: April 11th 2009
Such a cutie, but sadly now in bear heaven :(
1 Feb - when I emerge from the arrivals hall at Phnom Penh airport at 9am, Jodie is waiting for me. I meet Jodie & Peter, (the volunteer co-ordinators from Free the Bears) and Janine another volunteer...all Aussies. We drive into centre of the city and explore the Russian Market, have a nice brunch then stop off at a few supermarkets for the weekly supplies. Loads of interesting fresh and packaged new and weird Asian foods to try. It's late afternoon before we arrive at the volunteer house and I'm knackered. Meet the other volunteers Lynn and Mary Ann (Aussies) and Jen from Yorkshire who will be my room buddy.
So there's 5 volunteers for this week and not forgetting Jones...the German shepherd. The house is fab - huge, spotless with 3 rooms for the volunteers...our room is en suite. There's a huge sitting area upstairs with comfy chairs and loads of books and DVD's with a great balcony outside overlooking the fields. The office is downstairs and there's a well-stocked kitchen...so this is home for the next 4 weeks 😊
The girls have organised an Aussie barbie. I join in for part of the beer-tasting but head to
Playing with food ball
bed before the food is served as I'm shattered and hot (shock to the system after chilly Kathmandu!). Sleep soundly.
2 - 27 Feb - leave house at 8am to drive to 'work'! We stop off at the village, Samranjouen, to collect the daily bananas, guavas, pineapples, eggs and grass from the market...for the bears. Drive for 15 mins to reach Phnom Tamao Zoological Park and Wildlife Research Centre. The bear program is funded by Free the Bears, a Perth-based charity which has established the bear sanctuary within the park. The others get to work while Jodie gives me an induction about both the Zoo and background on Free the Bears charity.
The Zoo serves as a safe haven for animals that have been rescued from the wildlife trade and also for unwanted pets that people have either grown tired of or are no longer able to manage. They have large, natural enclosures here, receive an excellent, varied diet and veterinary care if needed. All of the animals are native to SE Asia (except for one African lionness who is being bred with an Asian lion). On my first day I get a tour round the zoo to
see the other animals which include crocs, deer, birds, monkeys, elephants, tigers, lions, white squirrels, otter, slow loris, leopard, hogs and many more.
FTB has rescued 125 bears in Cambodia and currently has 104 bears at the sanctuary consisting of Sun Bears, the smallest type of bear species and EXTREMELY cute with yellowish crescents on their tummies, and Asiatic Black bears which are bigger and hairier. These bears have been rescued from:
- hotels and restaurants where they were caged for the 'amusement' of guests
- poachers selling orphaned cubs
- handed in my owners when they become too big to look after
- freed from snares
- seized from the black market bile trade where their gall bladders and other parts are used for traditional Chinese medicines.
I am shown around the various bear houses and meet the keepers in each house. There is:
- the kitchen where the teenagers are kept and all the food is prepared and distributed twice a day with Teah the keeper.
- the nursery, with cute wee Nutkins the 6 month old cub and Mr Heng, who treats the wee bears like his children
- the bachelors with Rit (my favourite!)
It sucks being in a cage...
But it's a better life than where I came from
- the Asiatic blacks with Mr Tan
- the Females & Hooligans with Mr Ran
The enclosures contain large rocky outcrops, native vegetation, climbing frames, bathing pools and night dens. Although it's upsetting to see the bears in their cages, they are much bigger than the cages they have previously been kept in and as they are wild animals but no longer able to survive after being around humans for so long, this really is the best place for them.
I quickly get into the daily routine:
- breakfast on the balcony and leave the house at 8am
- collect the fruit and eggs from the market
- carry out the morning tasks of feeding (the bears are fed a slop of cooked rice mixed with egg), clean the food trays, pick up the coconut husks and poo from the enclosures, clear each cage of poo and leftover fruit then wash down, scrub and rinse
- help with other tasks such as raking leaves, collecting rubbish / coconut husks
- prep the food by cutting the bananas from their stalks in to bunches, slicing the pineapples and cracking the eggs.
- 1 hour lunch spent at makeshift
Bile trade bears are kept 24/7 in cages like this
bamboo structure cafes where we sit on raised platforms and relax in hammocks eating a huge plate of rice and veg together with a much needed cold drink, all for 400 riel ie $1. Beats sitting at my desk having a Sainsbury's sarnie 😊
- after lunch we assist with any jobs Pete needs done around the enclosures such as painting, food enrichment (hiding food such as pasta, honey, marmite and bananas in plastic dog toys and balls), scatter feed (hiding food such as bananas, saspadillos and green beans round the enclosures encourages the bears to hunt rather than just giving the food direct to them in their cages), mixing concrete, laying crazy paving (!), making new enclosures, a bamboo bin and watching the fun activity of bear painting for fundraising purposes.
- finish work at 4pm, sometimes a bit of overtime
- enjoy a 'dirty beer' on the balcony back at the house
- more beers, snacks and a natter (Jenn and I discover an obession for wasabi covered peas!)
- watch DVD
I gradually get to know and recognise some of the bears including Sai, who is heading off to France, Srey Lek
At the morning market
Getting the daily bananas
who is recovering from a nasty wound and is on 24/7 watch, the 6 month old cute, wee cub Nutkin and the other older cubs Molly, Milly, Holly, Harry and Olly who are very playful and extremely entertaining to watch as they play fight in their hammocks and pools.
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