Monday, 2 July 2012

A Day in the Life of a Bear Keeper

When Sreekanta came to the Agra Bear Rescue Facility to repair the solar power fence, little did he know everything was going to change from that day on! He worked on the enclosures in the morning and during lunch he would watch keepers like Mubarak and the others feeding the bears and going about their chores. After seeing how everything was done and watching an old bear walk slowly to the keeper and rub against him, Sree, as he is lovingly called by the Wildlife SOS staff at the centre, suddenly knew that was exactly what he wanted to do with his life. So he signed up with Wildlife SOS to become a full time Paravet and a bear caretaker at the Agra Bear Sanctuary. Nine years have passed since then and he has more stories than most zoo keepers about the cubs he has hand raised, all of whom are large grown up bears now. 

I found out more about Sree’s life with the bears:

Q.1 – What are your daily duties? 
A- My day starts at the Wildlife SOS centre at 7am in the morning.  I start by washing out the bear dens and then, once they are clean, I bring large quantities of porridge from the kitchen for the bears. I then wash all the bear plates and pour the porridge out, putting in the boiled eggs, dates and a handful of chopped fruits. I keep a close watch on the amount of food and medicines that are supposed to be given to each bear because often even the smallest change in their food habits can alert us to something wrong with a bear. After feeding it is cleaning again and then I cut up branches, prepare food balls, honey logs and other such enrichments to be scattered and hidden in the enclosures. That’s my favourite part of the day.  After that it is fruit feeding, cleaning and then cooking the porridge for the evening feed. I also take care of para veterinary work and I enjoy the challenge of helping treat these beautiful animals!

Q.2- Every keeper has a few favourite animals, who are yours?
A- I really care about all the bears but I must confess that I do have a soft spot for the bear cubs I fostered with my own hands. I have hand reared many cubs and Layla, Giri, Guna, Nakul, Kuber, Chamundi, Anandi and Deva remain my favourite bears.

Q.3- How did you start taking care of the bear cubs? 
A- These were really small bear cubs rescued by Wildlife SOS from poachers who had stolen the cubs from the mothers. I was on the night shift the day the cubs arrived at the centre and I spent the entire night working with the vets Dr Ilayaraja and Dr Arun at the centre keeping an eye on the cubs. My curiosity made me work with the cubs but then I became very fond of them and I enjoyed looking after them, staying up all night and feeding them every three to four hours. Sometime the cubs get scared and need calming down. When I had to leave the next evening the bear cubs refused to let go of me and started screaming as if they did not want me to leave. This helped me make up my mind and after that I asked Wildlife SOS to give me the bear cub care duty in addition to my other duties. My work started initially with only two bear cubs but I genuinely loved caring for the little ones. So I went on to care for more and more cubs. It makes me feel like a responsible father.

Q.4- How many cubs have you hand reared?
A- I never had the time to count as the cubs kept me busy all the time, but I think I would have helped rear at least 20 of them. Their ages always varied so the amount of work was always different. There was never a boring moment.

Q-5- Are there any memorable incidents that come to your mind? 
A – One night Layla bear cub suddenly got very sick at about 2am and I sensed she was ill. I stayed up all night for several days to nurse her. I asked the vet to look at her and then this encouraged me to learn para-veterinary skills from the vets at the centre. When you watch these cubs at close quarters, you realise they have likes and dislikes, have moods that differ and each one of them has a different habit. Like Kuber, the elder cub at BBRC had a habit of sucking on Nakul’s ear and we never understood why until we realised that he would resort to this behaviour when he felt stressed.

Q.6- Have you gone on any rescue operations? 
A- Oh yes! I have gone on rescue operations and have helped transport bear cubs over thousands of kilometres by road and by air! It was never easy as the cubs have to be kept calm as any noise could stress them out.

Q-7- Apart from bears, have you taken care of any other animals? 
A – I have taken care of several animals other than bears – pangolin (ant eater), spotted deer fawn, hog deer fawn, baby monkey and several injured birds. But the bears are closest to my heart – they can be feisty or fearful, inquisitive or shy, calm or just a little bit crazy – but always fun to be around and never ever dull!

Written by Aishu Sudarshan

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Enriching the lives of our rescued bears

Wildlife correspondent Aishu Sudarshan provides an insight into how we enrich the lives of the bears at our sanctuaries...

Most of us have a fond childhood memory of a playground where the seesaw was stiff and rusty and you had to be a daredevil on the jungle gym to join the cool gang. The reason we were taken to parks as children was not just for our mothers to get some quiet time. It was also to help improve us mentally and physically. The park made us stronger not just by swinging higher than everyone else, but by teaching us new routes, new tricks, making us plan our play time and by pushing us into climbing the highest part of the climbing frame.

Wild bears get their enrichment from climbing trees, hiding from predators, digging holes, foraging for food and various other natural activities. But things were slightly tougher when it came to the rescued  dancing bears. Not only were they domesticated by their Kalandar owners, but they had no clue how to get into a termite mound or even try and dig a trench.

After rescuing more than 600 bears we knew we had a big tough job on our hands. We had to keep their minds stimulated and help them forget their brutal past. We had to keep in mind their mental and physical wellbeing and decided to take baby steps at helping them become wild bears again.

Our first step was to reintroduce them to climbing to improve their mobility and reduce the abnormal repetitive behaviour seen in most dancing bears. The Climbing Frame started off as a one story platform with wooden rungs for footholds. It was made out of thin logs and rope. We never realized the strength of a fully grown bear until we saw one break the entire frame in a fit of anger!  Over the years we have succeeded in making stronger frames which 3- 5 bears can climb on at the same time.

From frames we gradually progressed to Hammocks. We started making them out of large jute sacks that were attached on 4 corners to strong logs of wood. Apart from a few instances where a bear has pulled out the entire hammock, we have been pretty successful. Today, our hammocks vary from high ones that are made of fire hose, to ones that can fit two bears and are attached to a climbing frame.

In the last few years various enrichments have been given the vote of approval by the bears: others have been ditched after failing to make the grade. But after many trials and even more errors we stumbled upon 2 methods that were and still are winners: the fruit barrel and the termite mound.

The fruit barrel is a simple contraption that involves 3 pieces of wood and a big drum. All you do is make holes at regular intervals all around the drum and on the two ends. Push a stick through the end holes and hey presto! The barrels are filled with fruits and only if rolled will the fruits drop. The most hilarious visual is to watch the cubs roll the barrel and try to push their snout inside. It took them a while to get the hang of how the barrel rolled but once they caught on there was no rolling back!!

The termite mounds were an experiment that turned out perfectly. The idea began as a play toy for the cubs where a slightly out of shape bucket was used to introduce them to sucking liquids and mashed fruits. The bucket took a beating after the cubs started to grow and we needed sturdier things to survive their wrath. That was when a large cemented mound was made with pipes at various levels. This has been a huge success with the cubs at all our centres and was also introduced to the blind and partially sighted bears.

Our latest and by far the most exciting enrichment was introduced to us by the generous and kind Free the Bears Fund volunteers from Australia. They brought along with them a wonderful innovation called the  Aussie Dog Ball that was created to help stabled equines with mental and physical enrichment. Today it is a craze with pets and wild animals that are bred in captivity.  These balls are round and made of a hard material that is light and can take a few thrashings. It has an opening on one side through which fruits and various treats are put in. it is then rolled into the enclosure and the enriching part is to see how many bears use skill instead of strength to get the food out.  We were amazed to see the cubs dig out the food more quickly than the others because of their small paws!

Each enrichment that is added to the enclosure always guarantees two things, 1. The sight of a bear’s hidden strength being used in attempting to destroy the enrichment, 2. The chance to watch even the laziest bear try his hand at working out the enrichment  before he goes back to his favourite shady spot. Now that truly is an enriching experience!

Watch a video of the bears testing out some of the enrichments

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

A tale of two bears

Wildlife correspondent Aishu Sudarshan provides an update on the two bears rescued from Chitradurga zoo...

It has been several months since the brothers from Chitradurga set foot in the Bannerghatta Bear Rescue Centre and every day since that November afternoon things have been looking up.  The minute the brothers entered the centre, they were given large dens with a water trough and fruits to make them comfortable after the journey.  They were christened Angelo and David.

Angelo and David explore outside
Angelo was the elder brother who unfortunately tested positive for TB. David on the other hand tested negative but was extremely underweight. When the team at the centre saw the brothers they let out a gasp at how full grown bears could weigh so little.

Angelo was immediately put on medication because the TB was in the initial stages and so we took more precautions. David was put on a highly nutritious diet that included various growth supplements and vitamins.

In the past 5 months we have seen them improve both mentally and physically. Angelo’s coat has started looking fuller because of the diet and medication. He developed an appetite and didn’t complain when we added the medicines to his porridge. He kept to himself and used to become extremely tense when an unfamiliar person came to see him.

Today, Angelo is more or less the same bear but he has become much healthier and finishes all his meals.  His coat has improved, his medication is working and he has fallen head over heels in love with watermelons. There are a few things that we hope get better with time, for one his fear of humans. If Angelo senses a new person near his den, he tries to hide in a corner and won’t eat or move until that person leaves.  It is his miserable past that has led to these circumstances but we are hoping it’s just bright and beautiful from here on.

David is called the little one because he would eat very little and was extremely small for his age. David was just skin and bones when he entered our centre. He refused to eat anything on the first day and didn’t eat any fruits till 2 weeks later.

Now, he is still a much slower eater than his brother but his appetite has improved and so has his coat - and he loves pineapples! The most noticeable improvement is his personality. David came to us as a worn out bear that wouldn’t even move in his den. Today, he digs pits, destroys the enrichment and shreds coconuts in milliseconds.  He even snarls back at the other bears!

David enjoys coconuts
A few weeks back the keepers created a little area for Angelo to make him comfortable with the outside and help him start using the enrichment. It took him a while to come out of his den and take a few steps. He was extremely wary of his surroundings. But when he did gather the confidence there was no stopping him. He sniffed the entire place, tried his hand at the enrichment and even ran towards the keeper.

David on the other hand took to the outside like a pro when he was introduced to it a few months back and went straight to the fruit barrel looking for pineapples. We are extremely happy the brothers have come on so well and now feel sufficiently at home in the rescue centre to reveal their very different personalities.

Read the full story of the bears' rescue on our website.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Meals in bed and plenty of playing and digging: a day in the life of Nakul the bear cub

Wildlife correspondent Aishu Sudarshan introduces a resident of our bear rescue facility in Bannerghatta

Nakul soon after he first came to our centre
Fifteen month old Nakul came to the Bannerghatta Bear Rescue Centre as a three month old cub who was scared and intimidated by the number of people around him. Nakul and his brother Kuber were rescued from poachers in Karnataka who had killed their mother and stolen the two cubs.  After they were rescued by the law enforcement agencies and the forest department they were taken to BBRC and that was when it all changed. For the first three months of his life Nakul didn’t have a home, he was with humans all the time, was hidden in a gunny bag when the situation called for it and was shown off to various interested buyers.

On his first day at the centre, Nakul was terrified: he perhaps feared us as prospective buyers and would scream if anyone touched him. The minute he entered the enclosure, he ran to the water trough and finished off almost every drop. His journey and his fear of the crowd had made him thirsty! We were sure Nakul was hungry too so the boys cut some watermelons, papayas and pomegranates and offered it to him. It took less than five minutes before the plate was licked clean and he sniffed around searching for any pieces that he had missed!

Nakul loves his hammock!
Thankfully Nakul’s muzzle wasn’t pierced and his canines were intact. He was just bruised in various places and had small wounds here and there - apart from that he was a healthy cub.  He started growing stronger and more active as the days passed and was equally mischievous: he would climb everything in sight and chew on everything possible. We still remember the first time he sat on a hammock. We were sure he was in love. He would expect everything to be brought to the hammock: the boys had to move the water closer so he could just bend and drink it whenever he felt like it, and even his fruits had to be given there! His infatuation hasn’t died down: even a year later the hammock is Nakul’s favourite object.

Nakul now enjoys life at BBRC
Today, Nakul weighs 45 kgs and is dewormed and vaccinated. He is a determined boy who can pull a whole watermelon down from the enrichment after trying for a while. He enjoys papayas, apples and loves porridge.

It has been a long journey for Nakul and his brother and we are glad they are here now and no longer in the hands of heartless people who would have made them dance and traipse along the streets for hours on end. We also hope Nakul continues to enjoy his hammock, relish the fruits and porridge and pass his time happily digging and wrestling with his brother.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Introducing Ambika

Wildlife correspondent Aishu Sudarshan introduces another of the residents at the Agra Bear Rescue Facility. 

Everyone at the Agra Bear Rescue Facility still remembers when Ambika arrived. It was winter and things seemed even gloomier when we saw how badly neglected she was. She had not a single tooth in her mouth. She was undernourished, smelly and miserable. We believe she understood things were going to change though, because she was quiet and allowed the keepers and vets to approach her with great docility. Her first diagnosis was a poor appetite and a septic muzzle; an enlarged liver and congested lungs. It took her a while even to understand that fruits are to be eaten, because for six years all she had been fed on were plain rotis (Indian bread).

Today Ambika is a healthy 121 kg bear who doesn’t just eat her fruits but relishes them. Her biggest discovery since the day she arrived is eggs! She loves them and will always be the first one to eat the boiled eggs in her porridge. She is now healthy, active and has a luxuriant coat. When she isn’t dreaming about eggs she enjoys playing with Abha and Archana at mock fighting, wrestling, and climbing the platforms.

Her keeper says Ambika’s favourite pastime is to empty all the water from the trough. She loves playing with it and will be seen splashing around and slurping water most of the time. We are always glad when a bear is doing what she loves, whether it is snuffling out eggs in her porridge, play wrestling with her friends - or making waves in the water trough!

Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Ding dong bell there’s a Blue Bull in the well!

Aishu explains that sometimes it's not just bears that need rescuing...

As well as caring for the hundreds of rescued dancing bears at our centres in Agra, Bannerghatta and Bhopal, our partners at Wildlife SOS are on call 24/7 to respond to all kinds of wildlife emergencies.

On 18 Feb they rescued a Blue Bull, otherwise known as a Nilgai, from a 15 foot deep disused well close by a wheat field. It was near the village of Runkuta in the state of Uttar Pradesh, about 50 kms from our Agra centre.

The team went to check on the state of the bull on the night it was discovered and left some fodder for it. Then they returned at sunrise with the rescue equipment. They examined the animal, carried out the rescue operation, checked once more that it was free from injury and then set it free – job done! All in a day’s work for the rescue team, but the Blue Bull had a lucky escape thanks to them. Let’s hope he looks where he’s going in future!

Monday, 27 February 2012

Introducing Valmiki

Wildlife correspondent Aishu Sudarshan, tells us about Valmiki, who is living happily at the Agra Bear Rescue Facility. 
When Valmiki arrived as a 3 year old male bear after being rescued from a Kalandar in Nepal, he was dehydrated, pitifully thin and with a sparse, dull coat. On the way over to the Agra Bear Rescue Facility, he managed to remove the rope that went through his muzzle –a symbolic gesture if ever there was one! He was friendly and cooperative, seemingly fully understanding that we were here only to help him and make him get better. 
It has been a year and a half since Valmiki arrived and we are just so glad he is here. His appetite has shown drastic improvement because he went from being a frail 60 kilo bear to the 102 kg weight he is today. Titli bear is his best friend and you will watch them both fighting for hammock space and digging the ground intently. Valmiki loves climbing and keeps juggling between the climbing frames and the trees. If there is one thing his keeper, Gopal, tells us it is that he eats extremely fast and is always given a second helping. If he isn’t given one you will hear continuous calling, grunting and nudging to get Gopal’s attention.  
We are delighted that now Valmiki’s muzzle has healed, his coat is fluffy and thick and he is safely vaccinated against diseases.  It warms our hearts to see him running around, climbing trees, stealing watermelons and just being a beautiful boisterous bear!