We recently posted a video of two of the sun bears at one of the centres we work at meeting each other for their first play date. Most responses to the video were very positive from volunteers who know the bears and were happy that the introduction was a huge success. However, we also received the following comment “I’m sorry I must be confused but what I see is bears caged, not free, in the dark with absolutely NO natural habitat and nature around them. What’s so beautiful about this???? It looks very very depressing for these bears to me!!!”

The reality is that the issues are so numerous and complex that there was no quick way to address this statement without giving a full explanation of the context. The reply became so lengthy that we decided to make it into a blog as we are extremely committed to the work we do but fully appreciate that the situation on the ground is not always clear or obvious to those looking in from outside. We very much thank the member of our Facebook community for her comment and her concern for the bears and always welcome open and honest discussions.

We would like to respond to the aforementioned statement by highlighting a number of realities.

1) The video is taken in the bear night dens. Normally the bears have access to their outdoor enclosure during the day, which is full of climbing platforms, rotten logs and trees as well as other enrichment items, which we have placed in the enclosure to encourage the bears’ natural foraging behaviours. The doors to the night dens are left open during the day so that the bears can choose which space they would like to be in and come and go as they please. One of the most important things to maintain good mental health in captive animals is to give them as much choice as possible and this is way of offering them a choice.

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2) Sinead, the bear who we are trying to integrate with the group, currently lives in a night den by herself and has the opportunity to explore the outdoor enclosure every third day whilst the other bears stay in for as long as she is busy outside. She is never shut out of her night den because when she has had enough of the outdoor space she is quite frantic and anxious to get back inside. For most of the bears the night dens are the place where they feel most comfortable and safe.

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3) We do the introductions in the night dens. This was the first time Sinead had been in the same cage as Corrine, the other bear in the video. Sinead has lived in the night den next to the other 5 bears for a number of months and they are able to have contact through the bars. Over the months we have observed their interactions change slowly from negative and aggressive to very positive. This was always something that was going to take time so we have moved forward with the introductions at a pace Sinead seems comfortable with. Although interactions have been positive through the bars you can never be 100% sure what will happen when you open the doors between them; hence introducing them in the night dens so that if they did fight we are able to separate them quickly to avoid any injuries. If we simply released them together into their enclosure for the first time and they did fight then there would be nothing we could do to stop it or prevent injury.

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As stated in the caption which accompanies the video, Sinead has transitioned from a bear who was terrified of other bears to an individual who pursues playful interactions with the other members of the group. Although sun bears are solitary animals in the wild this has most likely evolved as a response to limited food availability in the jungle. We, and other rescue centres, have seen that captive sun bears often form friendships and alliances and take a great deal of comfort from companionship with each other. They clearly play and social interactions are an incredibly healthy form of mental and physical enrichment. For these reasons we are delighted for Sinead that she seems to have lost her fear of the other members of the group and now sees them as potential playmates.

4) The night dens are regularly equipped with many enrichment items including climbing structures, swings, hammocks as well as natural substrates such as rotten logs, leaves and branches. In this scenario we left the night dens bare to ensure that there were no items which the bears might fight over or which might clutter the dens thus affecting their ability to run away from each other if need be.
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5) The night dens are fairly dark because they are nestled in the jungle and the jungle is dark. The bears much prefer to be in cooler shady places than they do in the sun because they would naturally live in dense rainforest which is lowly lit and damp. Having said that, on sunny days the night dens get plenty of natural light. In the wild sun bears either rest in trees or dig out a den under logs or the roots of trees.
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6) Yes the bears are caged. Whether in their night den or outdoor enclosure there is sadly no denying the fact that they are captive wild animals. This is due to the fact that sun bears, like many other species of wildlife, are taken from the wild and exploited in many ways. Sun bears are frequently hunted and killed for their meat and their various body parts, including the gall bladder which is used in traditional medicine and their paws which are used in a dish called “bear paw soup”. Tragically, a mother and cub combination is very valuable to hunters as the mother can be killed for parts and the cub can be sold into the pet trade. Most cubs who are sold into the pet trade will have their teeth cut (usually with bolt cutters and no anesthesia or pain relief) and may also have their claws pulled out. People do this because they think this will allow them to handle their pet safely for longer.

The reality is however that if they survive this brutality they grow into incredibly strong animals who could do a human owner immense damage even without their teeth and claws. As a result bears are then chained or placed in cages not much bigger than they are when they get too much for their owners to handle. This is the type of situation that the majority of the bears at the centre we work at have been rescued from. The situation is far from perfect and we desperately wish we had more enclosures so that we could rescue more bears from such conditions. However, as a small not-for-profit we have limited funds and many, many animals to care for so these developments take time. In the mean time we do the absolute best we can for the 11 bears at the centre. They all have emotional scars as a result of their previous lives but the incidence of stereotyping and other stress behaviours diminishes over time as they settle in to sanctuary life.

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7) Sadly sun bear habitat is disappearing at an alarming rate. The “slashing and burning” of large areas to make way for palm oil plantations as well as the logging of rainforests are the leading causes for this loss of habitat. So the reality is that there is a lack of space to release bears into. Rehabilitation and release of sun bears is very difficult and has unfortunately been very unsuccessful to date for the following reasons:

a) Human-bear conflict: People are the number one killer of rehabilitated (and wild) bears. This is a combination of active hunting as well as shooting bears who raid crops.
b) Conflict with wild bears- wild bears are a lot tougher than rehabilitated bears and often kill rehabilitated bears in order to defend their own territory.
c) Starvation- many rehabilitated bears die of starvation because they are ill-equipped to forage adequately over vast areas in order to sustain themselves.

For all these reasons rehabilitation and release is an extremely uncertain future for the bears involved. It is also an incredibly labor intensive and expensive option. The money and time spent rehabilitating and releasing one bear could be used to provide sanctuary for many bears. In the case of sun bears our group strives to provide sanctuary for those in need and through our other projects protect the habitat of wild bears.

We hope that this helps make the situation a little more clear for anyone who had queries and we once again would like to thank the member of our community for giving us her feedback and raising some issues for us to address. The photos included in this blog are all taken of the bears at Matang Wildlife Centre where our current efforts to provide sanctuary for sun bears are focused.

By Bron Browning

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Baby bear tree

bear bucket

Big bb play log

Corrine climb

Cub tree

Fat bear tree!

Gaby and baby

Gaby and cub tree!

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Sinead barrell

Situ platform closeup