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