When bears have had a surgical procedure carried out they can’t go back to their enclosure until the operation site has fully healed. They stay in a hospital cage in a recovery area and are looked after by the veterinary team. One of the great things about being volunteer here is that, once you’ve been trained in how to carry out this care, you’re fully involved in the routine. Today was my first refresher course in bear care and it was as rewarding an experience as I had remembered. There is just one bear in recovery at the moment, a kind and gentle looking female called Bong Bong. She was rescued from a cage in a restaurant last autumn. It’s not uncommon for individual bears to be kept in similar circumstances in Vietnam rather than in bigger farms with more bears – all bear farming is technically illegal in Vietnam.
Just over two weeks ago her gall bladder was surgically removed, a procedure called a cholecystectomy. After years of repeated inserting of needles into her gall bladder to drain off the sought after bile, her gall bladder was horribly damaged and scarred. This was causing her pain and health problems and most bears who have been bile farmed need this procedure if they are to recover and live healthy lives. The surgery can take a few hours to perform and each bear needs to stay in recovery for about four weeks before being returned to their den and later their enclosure.
Bong Bong is making a good recovery and today she had to get used to a new person being around her cage and looking after her. Nursing a bear is similar to nursing a dog or a cat with the obvious exception that it is much more dangerous. The bear remains in the cage and you do not come into contact with it at all. But the requirements are exactly the same; Bong Bong needed her medication, she needed her wound checked, her cage cleaned out and she needed to be fed and watered.
We unlocked the padlock to the recovery area and went through the two disinfectant foot baths (security and bio security is vital). Richard and I then approached her cage with the plastic pot containing her medication. Fortunately bears are very motivated by food. Bong Bong’s tablets were hidden in two pieces of banana covered in honey (yes they do love honey!) and he fed these to her on a spoon through the bars – yummy. After she had taken those he showed me how to safely remove the food tray from the front of the cage by opening a small door and sliding the tray away from the cage before closing the door again. A clean tray with her morning feed of tomatoes carrots and a small amount of dried dog food is added. This is taken back to her cage and the same process of opening the door is followed and the food tray given. The open door also allows access to the water tray so when the food went in the dirty water bowl was taken out – both trays are never out at the same time. If both were out it could potentially lead to a large enough gap for an agile bear to fit a front paw through to take a swipe if they wanted to. The water tray really was dirty because Bong Bong had managed to poo in it – neatly fitting it into the tray, which is no mean feat considering the size of bear poo! While Bong Bong was happily tucking into her breakfast I was shown how to use the long metal hook to gently manoeuvre items from her cage that were left over from yesterday’s entertainment.
Obviously being in a cage 24 hours a day is boring – even for a bear like Bong Bong who has spent years doing just that, so it is important to try to keep her as mentally stimulated as possible during her recovery and rest period. So at intervals during every day she’s given different toys or treats to keep her busy. Some of these toys are designed to be destroyed by the bear so that she can get at something tasty inside. Yesterday she had clearly had a piece of sugar cane because there were long strands of the cane in her cage which needed to come out. There was also a hessian sack which needed to be hooked through the bars of the cage. The sack would have served two purposes, it would have had a sweet treat hidden inside and once she had rummaged through the sack and satisfied herself it was empty, she could use it for bedding.
Once we had cleared as much detritus from her cage as possible we then cleaned under the cage using a long handled squeegee, soapy water and finally finished with hosing underneath. This last part was a real treat for Bong Bong. For the first few weeks post surgery it is vital that the wound is kept clean and dry and hosing under the cage is avoided in case of splashing. Bong Bong’s wound was looking great and the vet had given the all clear to resume hosing.
Bong Bong had finished all of her dog food and was munching on a carrot when we started to fill the water tray next to her. She put her head under the jet of water and splashed her paw in the water bowl. She moved her body clearly wanting her back to be hosed, although through her thick shaggy coat I wonder how much she could feel? Then she sat upright with her back against the cage exposing her recently shaved abdomen and with her arms in the air she really seemed to be saying “how about a nice cool tummy?”. For the first time in over two weeks she could enjoy a cool cool shower! She loved it! With the temperature over 30 degrees and humidity of 85% I know she enjoyed it!
Bears also eat a large volume of “browse” – this is a term used for general edible leaves and foliage such as palm and banana leaves. An armful of banana leaves were placed on the roof of the cage. Bong Bong sat up and pulled the first one through and sat chewing at the soft leaves. Most of the work had been done, the final thing to check was the enrichment. There’s an elaborate enrichment program set out for the bears in the hospital and the first one of the day was a large black Kong (the same thing that you can get for dogs and cats) filled with dried fruit and nuts and a smear of sesame oil on the outside. This was put into her food tray and Bong Bong immediately put aside her banana leaf and came over to pick up the Kong. Bears have more dexterity in their paws than dogs or cats so she was able to lie on her back with the Kong balanced in her paws manipulating the juicy morsels out of it. We turned on a big fan towards her cage and as we left recovery area she certainly looked a very contented bear.
This procedure is carried out five times during the day. She is fed a small amount on three of those visits but at each of them she is given a novel item such as a toy or a bamboo puzzle feeder or an ice block with frozen fruit or even a giant hide chew to keep her entertained. During each visit the volunteer nurse is gathering information about the bear. Is she eating and drinking? Has the faeces she has passed normal? What does her wound look like? Did she take her medication? What’s her demeanour and behaviour? Was she stereotyping (exhibiting a bizarre repeating behaviour often seen in captive animals)? The same information (apart from that last one) I gathered when I was a nurse with dogs and cats!
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