The Bear Necessities

Text and Photos by Lee Jia Wei

Tomorrow? Oh boy, how time flies! Just a flurry of constant diggings at the bearhouse and suddenly I’m going off real soon! Suddenly 20 days doesn’t seem that long at all, haha!

Being able to volunteer here was honestly, such a blessing from the start. Initially BSBCC had so many interns and volunteers, that they couldn’t afford to take in anyone else until September! However, I was determined to volunteer here, and finally a chance came – an intern student pulled out, and I was given the opportunity to be at the place I wanted to be! When I was told I got accepted, I was literally running around the entire top floor of my house, as if I struck a goal in football, haha!!

How is volunteering in BSBCC? I would say it was exactly I imagined it to be! We did so many things in a day, that lunch break became a luxury, and sleep was heaven, haha!

Everyday, as I am staying in the volunteer hut ‘Bjorn Hala’, I would wake up and make breakfast with my fellow housemates, and around 7.30am, we would go off to BSBCC. We’ll clock-in and start work at 8am when we reach there.

First, we will see which job we are assigned to. On some days, we help to clean the cages. I love how this particular chore tends to bring some people out of their comfort zone, as we have to deal with bear poop and leftover food scraps! In my opinion, cleaning the cages is the toughest of the day’s work, but once you finish cleaning a cage and it’s squeaky clean, you’ll have such a wonderful sense of achievement when you realize the bears would feel comfortable too!

Also, we have to check the electric fences, just to make sure there are not foreign matter obstructing its current. This is also fun, as I get to enter the bear jungle enclosures! (They made sure there aren’t any bears in the enclosure first before me and a staff went in) I got to see the jungle environment the bears explore in the day and it was great to see how big it was!

Then there is another job – the kitchen. I love being in the kitchen! Here, we help prepare the bear’s daily meals. From cooking porridge to washing, slicing, measuring and dividing fruits and vege – it is a blast for me!

Other side chores in which everyone helps everyone to do include feeding the bears in the bear house, feeding the bears out in the enclosures:-

Making enrichments (stuff in which bears can play with):-

Finding materials needed for enrichments:-
(Ginger leaves, dried leaves)

(Logs and sticks)

(Trekking to find termite nests)

(Bamboo and banana leaves)

And of course, giving the bears their enrichments!

Some of the small enrichments we make include:-

Bamboo feeders,

Fire hose feeders,

Nest balls,

Fruity ice blocks, aussie dogs (a sturdy ball with food in it) and Kongs (small rubber toy in which food can be inserted in it); and the big enrichments we make include hammocks, wooden structures and structures made from the fire hose. Usually in the afternoon, we will work as a team to prepare the enrichments, and give them to the bears in the late afternoons to play.

In overall, in my opinion, volunteering here is a “daily routine filled with surprises”. Sure, you know what to expect every single day, but there are so many aspects on what you actually DON’T expect, that makes your days different from the other. Like there was one day, a huge liana plant toppled from the top of a huge tree, and blocked our walkway. We have to cut and remove all the liana in the afternoon, and boy, some of the liana were spiky!

Also, we had to scare some cheeky macaques away because they were blocking the walkway. I also got to see the bear who is going to be released this month, Lawa, in her nest on a tree in her enclosure!

On some days, we get sessions with the founder of BSBCC, in which he was eager to share his knowledge with all of us. I was really happy I finally got to meet him in person as I am going to do the same course as him in university next year!

Not only that, I got the chance to go onto the platforms and talk with the visitors about the sunbears!

As an added bonus, I got to see three cubs – Boboi, Kitud and Tan-tan – being released into the wilderness for the first time. They have never set foot in the forest, and, seeing them slowly tapping the wooden ramp, putting their first paw onto the ground and hearing the staff proudly announce that “they have touched the ground!” felt like I was part of the Apollo 11 mission, except it was the phrase “one small step on the jungle, one giant leap for bearkind”! ^-^ I was really beaming with pride, as when I first came here, they were all still undergoing fence training and playing with one another. On that day, I saw these three bear friends help each other overcome their fear of the unknown, and took their first step onto the soil and grass – they looked so happy!! ^^ One day, I bet, they’ll be roaming in the forest of Tabin once again, back to where they belong.

Boy, I learnt so many incredible things here. I saw how humanlike the bears are! It was so surreal realizing that I am working with bears the first time I stepped into the bearhouse. Seeing them climb everything reminds me of myself when I climb everything in playgrounds! They are so curious, and so intelligent too. Seeing them figure out what to do with their enrichments really made me feel, “Wow, how similar they are to us!” And every bear had his/her own unique behavior and facial features, just like humans, that my initial thought of recognizing the sunbears via their chestmarks dissipated as quickly as it came. Chin always is having so much fun playing with wood, Along is always curious at my washing brush, Kitud loves to stand and watch you, Linggam loves your sincerity, Simone loves to try everything, Cerah and Jelita are friendship goals…. It resolidified my thoughts – We are all animal. We are all equal. No being is superior to the other. Why do us humans put ourselves higher than every other being? The mere fact is we are all the same. We are all breathing. We are all, Life.

And the people. Oh the people! They are probably the definition of “smells like team spirit!!” They ARE team spirit. Everyone in the bear house helps each other like no one else. Not one is selfish. Everyone, literally EVERYONE, is as friendly as anyone can get. At first, as I am from Penang (West Malaysia), I felt a little left out as I wasn’t too fluent in Malay and couldn’t exactly express what I wanted to say. As the days went by I slowly got used to their way of speaking and now “apa-apa saja yang mereka bilang pun saya tau bah” 😀 We had so much fun together after work. They took me out for Hari Raya, watch a movie, have a bbq party together, grocery shopping, tour the orangutan center, eat outside, hear a talk given by Mr. Wong in Sandakan city, and Mr. Wong even brought us to his house to try the food he made himself! It doesn’t feel like a routine when I’m around them – they will crack the silliest jokes and tell the most amazing stories, experiences, even randomly throw in incredible facts, and anime. Oh yes, and I’ve met so many people who studies/studied about the environment like I do – in which in Malaysia, we are a rare breed! Haha! Think this volunteering opportunity is serious? Yes, everyone takes the work seriously. But the atmosphere around the people? Not!! They’ll make any serious atmosphere disappear in an instant! This is the power of Sabahans!

Will I come again? Are you kidding me? Of COURSE! I can’t wait to see more and more bears released into the wild, and more bears rescued and rehabilitated. A LOT of the public think this is only a “center” and what they don’t know, is that ALL bears are RESCUED and are given a second chance to go back into the wild. I really want to see them released back into the Bornean rainforests, where they belong, and I know they are going to continue doing a great job at this, as long as they stay true to their mission. 🙂

I’m not sure if he minds this, but I’m going to quote a particular staff because this sentence has such a positive impact on me:-
BSBCC Staff: “I’m going to quit this job, when there is no need for it anymore.”

Me: *thinks sadly that he means that when the sunbears are extinct* “What do you mean no need for it anymore?”
BSBCC Staff: “When there are a lot of sunbears in the wild, and they are not even endangered anymore.”
Me: :’)

This is hope. And I’m hopeful for the sunbears.
This is a dream. And they are driving it.
I expect big things from you guys 😉

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