Volunteering at a bear sanctuary in Cambodia: An enriching holiday experience

Ju-Ju the sun bear is drooling with anticipation as I mix her mushy breakfast of oats, milk and dog biscuits, pacing up and down and growling disapprovingly at my tardiness. As I carefully place the metal bowl on the floor in front of her pen, she reaches under the bars with fearsome talons, greedily dragging the prize closer before gulping it down with snotty snorts of pleasure.

While Ju-Ju and 24 other bears sharing her concrete 'house' lick their bowls clean, I grab shovel and wheelbarrow and head into their enclosures for my next task – scooping poop. Not the most glamorous job in the world, but as a volunteer at Free the Bears sanctuary in Phnom Tamao, Cambodia, getting my hands dirty is an essential part of a vital and enriching holiday experience.

In 1993, Perth grandmother Mary Hutton was so moved by a current affairs TV report about bears being milked for their bile in coffin-like cages throughout South-East Asia that she started fundraising, compelled to put her outrage into action. 

Fast-forward 22 years, and Mary's non-profit Free the Bears Fund has facilitated the rescue of over 700 abused moon, sun and sloth bears in Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and India. Although most of these rescued bears can never be released back into the wild, the Free the Bears sanctuaries provide a safe haven as well as quality care, veterinarian treatment and enrichments to replicate their natural environment. When they're not eating or sleeping, you'll find them snoozing in a hammock, playing in a pond or chasing each other up climbing frames, forever safe from poachers and humans intent on their exploitation.

Every bear in the Cambodian sanctuary – 133 at last count – has a story to tell, often one of cruelty and abuse. Some have had their paws lopped off, tortured for the sake of a food delicacy; others have been kept in tiny cages, their gall bladders milked to provide a Chinese medicine with dubious medical attributes. 

The latest arrival – a tiny cub named Soriya Sundance - was rescued from poachers who had slaughtered her mother and were planning to sell her on the blackmarket. Weak and vulnerable, she was given round-the-clock care by her keeper Mr Heng, who slept by her side and fed her by bottle until she slowly gained strength.

Ju-Ju's story is slightly unusual, in that she had been a family pet, mollycoddled and unaware she was actually a bear. When first handed over to the sanctuary, she'd hide in a cave, growling whenever other bears approached her; eight years later, she has learned to be independent, to forage for food and to socialise with her own species. 

Providing continued care for this many animals is an expensive business, costing Free the Bears Fund $70,000 a month in total. All donations to the charity go directly to the bears and their upkeep, with 6000 members (mostly Australian) continuously fund-raising, buying sponsorships and purchasing merchandise to keep things ticking over.

A new innovation reaping a modest profit is the volunteer program at the Cambodian sanctuary, offering travellers the opportunity to take their support for the charity one step further. There are six volunteer placements available at a time, with a one-week minimum stay; and while animal husbandry and construction skills are valued, anyone aged over 21 prepared to work hard and enthusiastically is welcome.

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Joining me at the volunteer house this week is a veterinarian from Perth, who'll be conducting surgeries on several bears in need, assisted by a vet nurse from Adelaide; a PhD student studying the impact of the local macaque population on the captive bears; and two other unqualified but enthusiastic animal lovers, volunteering their time for a month or two. 

Our accommodation, located in a village half an hour from the sanctuary, is surprisingly comfortable, with real beds protected by mosquito nets, shared bathrooms, a fantastic lounge area with a pool table and – joy of joys - a sparkling swimming pool, an unexpected bonus after a sweaty day's work.

Steaming home-cooked Cambodian curries are presented on the communal dining table each night, while a short walk leads to a nearby shop where we stock up on beer and water, the mesmerising drone from a temple a reminder that we are living in the heart of a rural community.

Feeding and cleaning the bears' dens is our main priority each morning, helping the hard-working keepers with their daily chores. As well as supporting the bears, Free the Bears Fund provides steady employment and opportunity for locals; the sanctuary's program manager Vuthy Chuon, for instance, was a former zoo keeper, brought on board in 1997 to care for the first bear residents. Vuthy now oversees all aspects of the sanctuary's operation, and in 2012 was presented with an international 'Future for Nature' award for his achievements.

With the bear houses scrubbed, the volunteers then head for the kitchen to prepare 'enrichments'; bamboo sticks stuffed with fruit, honey and dog biscuits, and plastic balls punctured with holes so the bears have to work at retrieving the gooey, fruity contents. 

Over bucketloads of chopped fruit, we make small talk with the keepers; they teach us how to count in Khmer, while they relish this time to improve their English, haltingly sharing stories about their families, love lives and daily routine. 

Leading the banter is our volunteer coordinator, Mr Thol (the local men like to be addressed with the formal honorific), a former keeper who has worked with the fund for 10 years. Personable, with a great command of English and a wicked sense of humour, Mr Thol was just recently promoted to his new role; and he's the perfect intermediary for this cultural exchange, one of the most rewarding aspects of the volunteer experience.

At lunchtime, the whole staff wanders beyond the sanctuary gates where some local women have set up stalls, selling drinks and street food made to order. We kick off our shoes to eat on raised platforms covered with rattan mats, before swinging in hammocks for a quick siesta.

After lunch, Free the Bears Fund CEO Matt Hunt offers me a special treat – a visit to the baby bear nursery, an area of the sanctuary usually off-limits to visitors. Here I meet an adorable cub named Frank (so nicknamed because of his blue eyes), only a few months old and just like a playful puppy, all bounce and slobber, sharp teeth and piddle on the floor. 

Meanwhile, a rambunctious young cub, a little older than Frank, is scaling the wire fence of the outside enclosure, trying to steal our attention. This, Matt tells me, is Blue, who just a few months ago was brought to the sanctuary with a spinal injury, unable to walk. After months of 24-hour care, advice from vets and an exercise regime to strengthen his muscles, Blue now romps with full mobility, strong and healthy and showing no sign of the trauma that threatened his life.

This little fellow is testament to the care and dedication of the staff at the Free the Bears sanctuary – and I'm proud to have played a small part in their very important wildlife stewardship.

Julie Miller is the co-writer of Mary Hutton's biography, Free the Bears, published by Pan Macmillan. She travelled to Cambodia at her own expense.

TRIP NOTES

More information

www.freethebears.org/index.php/help-the-bears/volunteer 

Getting there

Thai Airways flies from Sydney and Melbourne to Bangkok (thaiairways.com.au); Air Asia flies from Bangkok to Phnom Penh (airasia.com).

Volunteering there

The Free the Bears sanctuary is at Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre, about an hour's drive from Phnom Penh. Volunteers are picked up in Phnom Penh on Sundays and taken to the volunteer house, about half an hour from the sanctuary, then transported out to the sanctuary each day.

A one-week volunteer program, including accommodation and two meals a day, costs $550, with subsequent weeks $350. Volunteers need to arrange their own flights and visas. Minimum age 21. 

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