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International Animal Rescue Saving animals from suffering around the world

Bear diaries: Enriching the lives of our rescued bears

Taken from IAR's blog, Bear Diaries:

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

Our bears need to constantly be physically and mentally challengedMost 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.

Our bears enjoy climbing (and breaking!) the framesAfter 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.

One of our bear cubs enjoys lounging on the hammockFrom 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.

Our bears master the fruit barrelThe 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.

A bear cub plays with the Aussie Dog BallOur 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!