Volunteering with bears

Volunteering with bears


MUCH MORE THAN JUST A HOLIDAY

Sun bears start off small, about 15-30cm nose to toe. So they're cute. Worthy of pet status. Then their claws grow to 20cm. Now they're not cute. So they're either chucked into cages or chained up or beaten or, if they're lucky, very lucky, dumped on the steps of a local animal rehab centre.
Until relatively recently in Romania, meanwhile, it was normal to see performing bears in circuses or jammed into tiny cages out the front of restaurants, hotels or even outside factories or garage forecourts. You could eat bear in restaurants or buy bear skins to hang on the wall or lie on the floor. Things changed in Romania in 2007 when the EU demanded an end to bear cruelty as part of the country's requirements for entry into the Union. This decision meant that captive bears were deemed illegal and owners fell over themselves to get rid of them. Thankfully, World Animal Protection and several local charities pre-empted this move and set up a Romanian bear sanctuary ready and willing to deal with the fall out.

How rehab and rescue centres help bears


Many of the bears that are taken into care in both Borneo and Romania will never be released into the wild. They've simply suffered so much at the hands of humans that they'd have little chance of survival and wouldn't know how to forage for food. They may also be attacked by larger bears. Captivity may mean captivity for life, but these sanctuaries offer mistreated bears the chance to live out the rest of their days in the most wonderful environment possible, where they can learn to climb trees, swim in pools and play fight with other bears, and where human contact is kind, not cruel.

One of the worst aspects of keeping a bear as a pet or as a means of making money is hibernation; after all, how can a bear be any 'fun' or make you any money if it's asleep for a couple of months? Rehab helps bears revert back to their original instincts and there's a lovely example of a bear that was in a rescue centre in Romania who slowly began to build his own den where he slept for a couple of months much to the joy and immense pride of the local staff members.
There was also a case of a rescued bear that would prowl back and forth over two metres of ground even though its rehabilitation enclosure was absolutely huge. This was because two metres was the size of its former cage. However, this story also has a happy ending. Slowly, over time, the bear started to extend its territory to three metres and then to five and to ten before all of a sudden it was learning how to scratch its back on trees and splash through water for perhaps the first time ever. Rehab really helps.

What role do volunteers play at bear rehab centres?


As bears at rehab centres in Borneo and Romania don't come into contact with humans, many of the tasks associated with volunteering revolve around food prep, monitoring and freeing up the time of permanent staff so they can create or maintain enclosures, help rescue more bears and work towards releasing just a handful of these mistreated animals back into the wild.

Understanding the bigger picture as to why you'd want to volunteer with bears requires a certain sense of selflessness where rewards are long term and may actually only be appreciated once you've returned home and received an update relating to a bear's progress and development. Some of these bears have never encountered a tree before and if you're lucky enough to stay for a couple of weeks, a month, or more, then you'll really get to appreciate the feeling of success when witnessing a bear stand up and scratch its back for the very first time.
Looking after bears in countries like Malaysia and Romania is not something that many local people regard as a great occupation. Although other parts of the world may perceive animal rehabilitation as noble, caring and pretty inspirational, this isnít always the case and sanctuary staff are often considered to be undertaking one of the lowest forms of employment.
Having volunteers on site gives these remarkable people the opportunity to broaden their horizons, learn new languages and to understand that much of the world respects what they do and holds their selfless and dedicated actions in extremely high regard. Volunteering as a family (minimum age 14yrs) is a great way to show that respect for animals spans generations as youíll be working alongside permanent members of staff and increasing your knowledge of conservation and animal welfare issues, ensuring everyone gets the best experience possible.

What volunteers need to understand before signing up


Undertaking menial tasks at a bear rescue centre allows staff to really focus on more important jobs like working with local authorities, organising educational visits for local schools and helping to re-home bears who've been housed in awful conditions at shockingly bad zoos.

Although this sort of volunteer programme doesnít involve any actual physical contact with bears you will be working in extremely close proximity to wild environments with just an electric fence between you and the animals providing an incredibly unique and absorbing experience to accompany day-to-day tasks. Before you travel youíll also, more than likely, receive a book of bears that you'll meet during your trip. Regular updates upon your return home are another important aspect of the experience as is the chance to fundraise and encourage other people to get involved and make a difference where it's needed most.
Due to the efforts of staff and volunteers these sorts of sanctuaries can offer bears a safe and natural setting to live out the rest of their days however, thanks to ongoing education programmes and governments waking up to hunting, cruelty and other animal welfare issues, one day we could live in a world where rehab centres are a thing of the past and bears and other animals can live in the wild free from further torment.
Volunteering with bears is not a vacation but if you've got the right attitude and want to really make a difference then it's an experience that will change lives; not least of all, your own.
Photo credits: [Top box: Colin Bowern] [How rehab and rescue centres help bears: Madeleine Deaton] [What role do volunteers play: Madeleine Deaton] [What volunteers need to know: William Andrus] [Bear poster: Ben Stephenson] [Helpdesk: Peeraput Chareeaun]

Written by: Chris Owen
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