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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Seven days in the life of a bear keeper

Seven days in the life of a bear keeper


Than has been a keeper at Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre for more than a decade. He has been working for Free the Bears since the end of 2008, where he runs the nursery that cares for 22 cubs, including a new one.


It is 7am, time to get on my moto and drive 30 minutes to Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre. As I ride on the bumpy dirt track I feel eager to see the bears and my colleagues. I go straight to my bear house where I am greeted by the 21 rescued bears under my care.

I first check the white board for any news and updates left by Jamran who worked the day before. “Buddy” has a small wound that requires spraying with an antiseptic. Next, I go straight to the nursery and see my two cubs. They are both asleep; I leave quietly so I don’t wake them. I take my push trolley to the bear kitchen where all the other bear keepers are. I wait and talk with my friends while the kitchen keeper divides the bear porridge into containers to feed all 118 bears at the centre.

Once back at the house I meet Thol, who is training to be a bear keeper. He has been working with me for about two months and is learning fast. I tell him to call in the first group of seven Sun bears while I prepare to feed the cubs. They are now awake and crying for food. Once I have finished sterilising the bowls and preparing the milk formula I read that they have fed well on the previous meal. I pour 200 millilitres of milk for each of them and mix in some rice porridge. The cubs who were sponsored and named Tina and Santiago (I call him Santi because it is easier to say) are now lapping up milk from a bowl, which means they are getting stronger and of course older. As I watch them lick up the milk I remember when they first arrived: November 20, 2011. The brother and sister fitted in the palm of my hand weighing only 900 grams each, and their eyes were not even open yet. I also remember when they first saw me. Maybe I should have felt happy, but instead I felt sad that they had to see my face rather than their mother’s.

Members of an ethnic minority living in Veun Sai district of Ratanakkiri province had handed the cubs over to the Wildlife Rapid Rescue Team who brought them here to be cared for. It is likely that their mother was either captured or killed for the pet or restaurant trade. I feel very lucky to have the experience of working with cubs, but also sad that I am still looking after newly rescued bears. I want everybody to know that bears should stay in the wild and are not for people to eat or use. After the cubs finish their feed I give them a clean-up using a damp cloth like their mother is licking them clean.

Now that the cubs are asleep I return to help Thol feed the other bears. The next age group I need to feed are the one-year-olds; they are cheeky little things and can be heard calling for their breakfast. At 11:30am it is time to prepare the cubs milk and porridge again. This time they are not as hungry; instead, they want to play.

At 4pm I prepare milk for the cubs again. They are hungry and so feed very well. I give them a wipe with the damp cloth and then leave them to once again fall asleep with their bellies full.

Normally, I would go home now with the rest of the staff, but since the cubs arrived I stay with them every second night. After showering, I drive to meet the security staff who also stay overnight at the centre. We eat at a local food stall and then watch TV that runs on solar power. Before I know it, it’s 7.30pm and I am again preparing milk and feeding cubs. After feeding them and getting them settled I head to the room adjacent to the cubs to get some rest myself. As lay down I think about my children and wife and hope that they too had a good day.


It is midnight and I am awake but very tired as I prepare the milk for the cubs. The cubs are also tired. I had to wake them for their feed, but once awake they drink well. I clean up their mess and go back to my room where I fall asleep quickly. My phone alarm wakes me and it feels like I have only just gone to sleep, but it is 4am. I turn on the gas cooker and heat water to warm the milk. The cubs feed well. I get on the push bike and take the electric fence tester and notebook with me. I ride to all 21 enclosures and check the readings on the fences. They are all fine. Back at my room I clean up, bathe and cook a packet of noodles for breakfast.

This morning there is a cool breeze as I walk with my trolley to the bear kitchen. There is nobody yet at the kitchen so I begin to divide the porridge that has been left to cool overnight. This morning I decide I will start work early so I can spend some time with some of the older bears before feeding the cubs at 8am. Some of the other keepers have favourite bears, but I don’t because I love them all. I think the bear Holly considers me her favourite keeper so I have a soft spot for her though. This morning she comes over walking slowly, one hind leg a stump, looking at me with her forgiving eyes. Holly was rescued from a restaurant; I can't fathom why anyone would want to eat bear-paw soup. After feeding the cubs I return to the other bears. This morning we are cleaning the pools in the one-hectare enclosure; it is hard work and the sun is hot. However, once we let the bears out and see them playing in the clean pool all the hard work is worth it.

I start preparing the milk for the cubs a little earlier today because I want to make sure I have my full lunch break. Today is the one day a week when all the bear keepers have lunch together. Even though I am tired this excites me as we only do this once a week. The food is good and there is plenty of it.

At 3:30pm I take the cubs outside for some sunshine. They are getting much more coordinated and are now climbing the smaller trees. Once the cubs have been fed and cleaned I hand over the duties to my colleague and go home.

My children are excited and they tell me their news from the past two days. Once my wife gets home from work, we all go to a pond about one-and-a-half kilometres away for a swim. At home we eat dinner together and then my wife helps the children with their homework. I'm very tired and go to bed at 8pm, falling asleep to the sound of my wife and children talking and laughing.


I slept well last night, waking up later than usual, at 5:30am. I rush through my morning’s chores, take my children to my mother-in-law’s house and then go straight to work. As soon as I arrive I prepare the cubs milk. I enjoy watching them and observing their different natures. Tina is the boss and is more adventurous, while Santi is more like my youngest child and follows his sister’s direction.

The sub-adults are very impatient today and are letting us know they want their breakfast. Today, we have some jam to smear in the enclosure on the logs, rocks and platforms. Once the enclosure has been cleaned and all the bears have had their porridge we let them out into the forested enclosure to find the sweet treats.

In the afternoon the volunteers deliver bamboo feeders filled with mashed banana, beans, dog biscuits and a little bit of honey for the bears to feed on. I help them throw the bamboo over the fence and point out the bears by name.

I sit down to eat alone tonight as I am looking after the cubs. Once I finish my pork soup I walk around section three and check that the gibbons, leopards, civets, binturong, otters and serow are all settled down for the night. Back with the bears, I feed the cubs and go to my room where I look through photos sent by volunteers from around the world as I drift off to sleep.


At 4am I am woken by the lions roaring. This is OK as I have to feed the cubs anyway. Once the cubs have settled down I go back to my room and lay down, but to restless to sleep and decide to get ready for work. I bathe, cook my noodles, dress, and go and collect the bears’ breakfast. Back at the bear house I start to call the bears in using their names. Skuon is the only one who hasn’t come inside yet. I go outside and walk the perimeter of the fence to find her fast asleep on the platform. I call her name again and she lifts her head to acknowledge me and then simply goes back to sleep. Because she doesn’t come inside the house I can’t go into the outer enclosure to clean it and put some treats out for the other bears. This is one of our safety rules.

At 9am I am told that a cub has just been rescued and is on its way to the centre. This is sad news. I was hoping that this year would be different, that we might have a year free of bears being traded. At 11:30am the first bear rescued in 2012 arrives and the Wildlife Rapid Rescue Team hand over a female Sun bear cub. She is terrified, but looks to be in OK health. Her eyes watch me as I take her out of the rescue crate and then they dart around looking at her new surroundings. I take her straight to our nursery area, which is dark and quiet; I can feel her heart beating fast as I lay her to rest on a towel.
She moves away from me and sits in the corner growling.

I leave her to settle and go outside to talk to the rescue team members. The head officer explains how they confiscated her after a tip-off from one of their informants. They had taken her from the poacher that was trying to get her across the border into Vietnam. As they tell us all the details for our records, my mind drifts off to thoughts about how the poacher caught her and that her mother was likely killed in front of her. My thoughts snap back to the present and I shake the hands of the officers and wish them luck with their next rescue. I look up to these men; they are brave.

She is smaller than Tina and Santi, but her teeth are much bigger. This tells me she is undeweight for her age. I prepare some milk and put it in a tray hoping she might be old enough to lap it up. She is very hesitant to come over to the tray, but hunger encourages her. She laps up the milk, which makes me feel very hopeful. I arrive home at 5pm, still thinking about the cub’s mother. I decide to take my children to see my mother as I haven’t seen her in awhile.


I arrive at work and go straight to see the cubs. All are sleeping. I look at the records and see that Rescue 159 (this will be her name until she is sponsored) has eaten well overnight. I am relieved: the first 24 hours after arrival are usually the most stressful for the bears and sometimes they give up the will to live. I think she is going to be great friends with Tina and Santi once she gains some strength and confidence.

I place her milk in the tray and watch from a distance as she once again laps all the milk. I go and cut some branches and put them in with her so she can feel like she is back home in the forest where I wish she still was. Unfortunately, it is likely she will live her life at the sanctuary with the other rescued bears because she is not old enough to look after herself. She will become too humanised to be released back into the wild. We estimate her to be about six months old and five kilos in weight. She would normally be with her mother until she is two years old. She is on the same feeding schedule as Tina and Santi, which makes it easier for me at feeding time. Although Tina and Santiago have yet to set eyes on the new cub, they seem to sense there is something different.

I leave late from work as I took Tina and Santi outside for some sunshine and exercise. They seemed to be having a lot of fun, so I didn’t want to spoil this and let them play a long time. On my way home I got a flat tyre and had to walk my bike for 2km before I could get it repaired, making my arrival home even later than usual. My wife welcomed me with sour soup.


Again, I check the cubs first thing, and again they are sleeping. Once all three cubs have been fed I make sure all the older bears are happy and healthy. I clean up their poo, fruit and vegetable scraps, scrub and re-fill the pool and scatter some sultanas around before letting them outside.

I am still feeding the cubs when my colleagues invite me for lunch. They start without me, but save some food. We chat about the wedding of a worker’s brother that we will all attend tonight before getting back to work. Today, there are no volunteers so all the keepers go to the bear kitchen to cut up all the fruit and vegetables it takes to feed so many bears. We then weigh it and divide it out for the different bear groups.

While I warm the milk for the 4pm cub feed I quickly bathe and put on my wedding clothes. Once the cubs are settled I go to the wedding: the food is good and the ceremony grabs my attention. After one-and-a-half hours I wish the newly married couple good luck and head back to the sanctuary where I stay the night and feed the cubs.


Today when I woke up it took me a few seconds to remember that it was my day off. I feel happy to spend the day with my children. It is 5am and I am walking the half kilometre to the water well with two buckets hanging at my sides tied to a rod of wood that I carry across my shoulders. As I walk past the dry fields I think about the rice paddy I have to work on today. I collect water for my wife, four children, two cows and one pig. As I walk back on my final trip I see the dry pond behind my house, and wish for the rain to come so I won’t have to walk to the well six times every morning to collect our daily water ration.

A video from the rescue centre is online at and on Facebook at www.facebook/7-days. A photo slideshow is on the 7Days section of the Post's website and a photo album is on our Facebook page. For more information on Free the Bears visit



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