This post is literally pulled from my journal from my time volunteering at the La Senda Verde Animal Rescue Centre in Bolivia.
I am now one of two longer term volunteers working with the Bear Care program here at La Senda Verde.
The sanctuary has two Andean Spectacle bears that call this place in the amazon basin home after being rescued.
Aruma is a five year old male who was rescued from a life in captivity in a small cage and brought to La Senda Verde as a cub.
He currently occupies an enclosure across the river from the main area of the park up a steep hill.
With over three thousand square metres to forage in it is not much for a bear of his size, but the best that can be offered to him and freedom compared to a life of being stuck in a cage.
Next door to him in the next enclosure is Tipnis, a three year old female who also arrived as a cub.
Two thirds smaller than Aruma she is much more sociable as male bears tend to be nomadic and in the wild will only come into contact with other bears when they are seeking a mate.
Her enclosure is much smaller only around one thousand five hundred square metres. Unlike Arumas enclosure her feeding enclosure can be locked so that you are able to work in it without her coming back suddenly.
Working with these majestic animals is a big change from the work I have been doing so far at La Senda Verde.
No more one on one interaction with the animals but instead a lot more observation work and enrichment development.
Each day we will prepare the food in the morning and then walk across the wooden bridge, stepping-stones and up a pathway to the bear enclosures.
Starting with Aruma we need to clean the enclosure and place the food inside.
The enclosures have smaller enclosures with a wire roof on where the prepared food is left. Fruits and vegetables can be spread throughout the main enclosure.
If Aruma can be seen then one person will go with peanuts and pass them through the wire to him to distract him whilst the other person goes into the small enclosure to clean.
This was a heart pounding moment for me when I went into the enclosure for the first time.
I knew that Aruma was happily eating peanuts but it was an overwhelming feeling to step back outside and lock the gate and think ‘wow I just went inside a 150kg bear enclosure with him only 20 metres away and cleaned and left food behind.’
The next day I was a fully-fledged bear care volunteer feeding, cleaning and observing the bears.
It was pouring with rain and as a result Aruma had no desire to come down from his nest to eat.
It makes me nervous when we don’t know where he is in the enclosure, as you have to constantly look over your shoulder to make sure he hasn’t appeared silently whilst cleaning.
When he does come down for food one person will keep him occupied with peanuts on the fence line to distract him.
He hadn’t eaten very much last night and I hoped that he was hungry and ready to eat his breakfast this morning.
After cleaning Arumas enclosure and leaving food behind we walked up to Tipniss’ enclosure.
She seems to always be around and was standing on her log suspended between two other big branches looking grand and waiting for us.
When she hops down and starts to run towards the fence line to say hello her whole body shakes and she runs like a little puppy dog with all four legs at once.
Cleaning her enclosure and leaving behind breakfast went smoothly and I hid a coconut in her tire that I delighted in watching her find and try and break.
She stood on her hind legs and picked it up out of the tire and carried it in her mouth into her feeding enclosure.
There she stood up again on her hind legs and holding the coconut above her head she threw it onto the ground repeatedly to try and break it.
After our volunteer breakfast the rains stopped and I went back across the river to check if Aruma had been eating.
He was in his feeding enclosure when I arrived standing on his hind legs imposingly and it was then that I realised for the first time just how tall he really was.
His granola was covered in bees and I was worried he would not eat it as he is scared of bees.
I went up to see Tipnis and found her sitting high up in the citrus tree in her enclosure, a tree so small I don’t know if it would hold my weight.
Somehow she manages to climb it and not fall and she stared down at me as I stood up and realised how beautiful bears are.
Coming from Australia I have never really thought about bears but these two here at La Senda Verde I have fallen in love with.
I left Tipnis sitting in her tree surveying her kingdom and went back to check on Aruma.
I was really excited to find him sitting hunched over his food bowl, both big paws on the rim eating excitedly even though there were bees flying around his head. He looked up at me for a few seconds and then went straight back to eating again.
Things are never dull here at La Senda Verde and last night the Kinkajou escaped his enclosure and has still not been located.
People were out searching last night, early this morning and tonight we had the challenge of keeping the five rescued dogs inside, as they will scare the monkey if he tries to return.
The Kinkajou is nocturnal so there is hope that he will re appear tonight.
I also found out that the reason that Tipnis has a coded lock as well as second lock on the door to her enclosure is that she has been able to open the coded lock in the past by passing her paw between the electric wire fence and turn the combination until it was right and then was able to escape.
It is just crazy that she is able to do this.
She also really loves honey sandwiches and receives one as part of her lunch meal and one at dinner.
I love sitting and watching her pull the sandwich apart and start licking the honey off each piece before eating the bread.
Tomorrow I am going to really brainstorm some enrichment materials for the bears as they need something that will keep them occupied but also is able to be made with limited resources and materials.
I want to try and make something that will make them have to try and reach up high and concentrate to get into.
Have you had a similar experience volunteering with animals or on a conservation project overseas?