Why you should care
Because it’s a humbling, rewarding experience.
Sandie the sun bear is showing off for me, standing on her hind legs and rolling onto her back, belly up, as I pass. She either likes me or really just wants a leafy snack, hoping the display of affection might land her a bigger portion. It works: I take one of the larger basketball-size orbs out of my wheelbarrow and lob it over the fence. With it greedily secured between her paws, she uses her long pink tongue with surgeon-like precision to lick every speck of raspberry jam off it, before moving onto the healthier greens.
Raspberry jam is a sun bear’s catnip, I’m told by El Vanny, a 31-year-old bear keeper of six years, as I assemble playtime snacks for bears inside the Free the Bears kitchen in Cambodia’s Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre. The nonprofit started in 1995 and is now home to some 132 rescues. But the bears are low on the list for tourists, compared to more typical pursuits like posing as Angelina Jolie in Angkor Wat temples, lazily boating past floating villages and possibly trying the country’s famous happy pizza.
So what’s a sun bear? Definitely not the “get away, grizzly” variety. They’re the smallest of the bear family, no more than 5 feet fully grown, with a distinctive gold crest on their chest, a slurpy 10-inch tongue and a penchant for lounging in hammocks. Many of these playful fluffballs walk human-style for short bursts — small and sturdy and steady as a dad at a wedding. They chase each other around trees and play fight with their strangely dexterous paws.
Cambodia is an Asian hot spot for the illegal animal trade, and bears are often killed for their “lucky” livers and bile.
And they’re almost extinct. Every bear here is a rescue, El Vanny explains, with many missing limbs from traps; Cambodia is an Asian hot spot for the illegal animal trade, and bears are often killed for their “lucky” livers and bile. Many travel companies offer animal voluntourism, but I was drawn to Free the Bears because of its animal advocacy history. The Bear Keeper day course is $50 to $70 a person, which includes making bears meals, serving them lunch and tidying their enclosures — not glamorous, but necessary work. However, most visitors stay for one to three months — one tourist I met had just extended his visa to month four — and help initiate long-term programs, with the hope that one day there will be more sun bears than the estimated 1,000 that exist in the wild.
Being a bear keeper for a day is a humbling experience, but also rewarding: Watching the bears hunt for food I’d hidden in their enclosures and splash through the pools was far more enjoyable than sipping mojitos in the city. Bear time is strictly at arm’s length, so there are no photos of me holding a baby — disappointing for my Instagram followers, but good overall, as the focus here is not about tourist snaps, but providing a healthy animal environment: the “bear necessities” of life, so to speak.