Free the Bears: Volunteering as a Bear Keeper in Cambodia

Whenever I travel to a new country, I like to spend a day doing volunteer work with animals.  Not only does it help support them, but it also gives me the chance to meet rare species and learn more about the culture of the country I’m visiting.  In Thailand I signed up for a program at the Elephant Sanctuary, and I just recently visited the Cleland Wildlife Park in Australia.  While I was researching animal programs in Cambodia, the Free the Bears volunteer program really caught my eye.  In this program, you will become a bear keeper for the day and get the chance to meet some extremely fascinating Cambodian Sun and Moon Bears!

About Free the Bears

Free the Bears was founded in order to help bears that had been neglected throughout Asia in “coffin-size” cages and milked for their bile, which could be used as an ingredient in medicine.  Fortunately this cruel practice is becoming illegal, but many bears are still being held in captivity.  This program helps educate volunteers on what we can do to save them, and also gives its participants to safely interact with them.  In addition to Cambodia, there are also other locations in Laos and Vietnam.  The Cambodian location is within Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre, and free transportation is included when you sign up for the program.

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Several Moon Bears feast on a nutritious lunch of vegetables and honey.

Itinerary

When I accepted to the program, I was sent the following itinerary via email:

09.30 to 10.00 – Arrive at the centre and have introduction and welcome.
10.00 to 11.00 – Guided tour around the bear sanctuary and introduction to the bears.
11.00 to 12.00 – Preparing bear enrichment.
12.00 to 13.00 – Lunch.
13.00 to 15.00 – Tour of other animals at the centre.
15.00 to 15.30 – Helping keepers put out enrichment, feeding bears etc.
15.30/16.00 – Leave centre and return to Phnom Penh by approximately 5.00pm.

Being a Bear Keeper for a Day

My day began with a cheerful tour around the wildlife center.  I lucked out because I was the only person on the tour and that gave me the chance to ask a lot of questions.  All of the staff was very friendly and spoke English.  I got the chance to meet several of the bears and they all seemed well-treated and happy.  Unfortunately you are not able to pet the bears, as their claws can be quite sharp, but you can get pretty close to them and take pictures with them.

After I met all of the bears, we started preparing meals for them.  I chopped up some vegetables and stuffed them in bamboo and plastic balls.  After the meal prep, I was guided to a fence where I could toss the food balls over to them, and pass them the bamboo sticks through the fence.

Watching them eat was extremely adorable:

We also took bits of food and scattered them across their playground.  This gives the bears a chance to exercise their bodies, and they actually looked like they really enjoyed going on the hunt:

I learned that sun bears are actually the smallest and rarest of the bear species.  My favorite bear was this extremely rare one that looks like a lion:

However, all of the bears I met were extremely cute!  I thought that some of them may be in rough condition, but all of the ones I saw had no visible injury or scarring.  They looked like they were living a happy life, and that made me extremely grateful.

Meeting the other Animals

In addition to bears, Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre is home to many other species of animals including gibbons, tigers, elephants, and more!  This was my first time ever seeing a gibbon, and I was extremely impressed seeing them climb and swing with their long arms.

In addition to the gibbons, I also met the most beautiful tiger in the world:

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Who knew such hidden beauty existed here in Cambodia!  Seeing this tiger was absolutely breathtaking.

Overall Review

I was overall extremely satisfied with my experience with Free the Bears, and would recommend the program for all animal lovers.  It doesn’t matter how much previous volunteer experience you have, because being a bear keeper here is actually quite easy!

The program costs $90 for which is a bit expensive, but you receive a free T-shirt which is actually quite stylish, and lunch and transportation is also included.  If you put things into perspective, Cambodia is an under-developed country, and these bears are in need of help so this is a good investment.  I took my money here rather than shopping at the night market, and feel extremely enriched because of it.

I really liked traveling in Cambodia, and I am happy that I made my money count here.  If you have any questions, feel free to ask me!

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Bathing in the Mud with Elephants at the Sanctuary (Phuket, Thailand)

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Volunteers jump in the mud to wash rescued elephants in Thailand.

I never dreamed I would be swimming through the mud in a giant elephant bath during my first day in Phuket, but as soon as I heard that the elephants were in need of protection, I signed up to be a volunteer at the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary.  There are a total of 4 parks in Thailand you can visit to help save the elephants (Chiang Mai, Pattaya, Samui, and Phuket) that all offer an educational hands-on experience with them.

The day starts with a free pickup from your hotel (from most locations) to the sanctuary.  After listening to a presentation on why it is important to protect the elephants, you are handed a knitted shirt and are given directions on how to feed them with corn stalks, bananas, and sugar cane.  The elephants are extremely friendly and approachable, and the English-speaking guides will tell you each of their stories.  You can tell that each one has been through a lot by the marks on their bodies.  They seem much happier in their natural habitat than anywhere else!

Most of the elephants I met were rescued from a harsh lifestyle of show business.  Due to being forced to lift heavy equipment and be trained to do tricks, some of their ears were worn from leather harnesses and and straps.  Additionally, their skin was discolored from being away from the mud for so long.  It is evident that elephants used for riding and for circuses are lacking in hygiene and not taken care of properly.  This is why we must do what we can to collectively help them and spread awareness.

A very important lesson to learn is: elephants should never be ridden.  The elephant’s spine will degrade overtime from the weight on their backs and it can cause permanent damage to their bodies.  One thing that upsets me with tour companies in Thailand is that they often feature both an elephant sanctuary and and elephant riding course.  Elephant riding should be discouraged as much as possible to tourists and permanently removed from the tour companies because it is extremely harmful to them.  Even though elephants look strong, they are fragile creatures that should be treated with respect.

After our feeding session, we headed to the mud bath where we happily washed and played with them!  The mud is extremely important in nourishing elephants’ skin and you can tell that they really enjoy it.  I’ll admit that I was a bit nervous to get in, but the group of friends that I met here encouraged me to so I took the plunge!  I am so happy that I decided to do this because I feel like I understand the elephants a lot more now.

You can choose from a half day and full day course with them, and an overnight course is available as well.  I decided to try the half day course just to see what it was like for 2,500 baht.  All of the money is used for medicine and maintaining the elephants in the sanctuaries, so I felt like this experience was well worth it.

After you bathe with the elephants, you will be able to take a shower and feast on a delicious Thai buffet meal,  I enjoyed my experience here very much because I feel like I learned a lot about them, and I even got to hug one at the end of the tour!

For those looking to volunteer, please look at the volunteer page, and cherish the moments you are able to spend with these precious animals.

Volunteering at the Koh Lanta Animal Welfare Center (Thailand)

Koh Lanta is an exotic and tropical island located in the Krabi Province of Thailand.  It is somewhat secluded and is a popular backpacking and resort destination due to its relaxed nature and beautiful wildlife.  One of the key points of interest on my 2nd trip to Thailand was doing some volunteer work, so I decided to volunteer at the Lanta Animal Welfare Center!

The Lanta Animal Welfare Center is a non-profit charity that saves animals from injuries and abuse, and then aims to release them back into the wild where they were found or to give them to proper homes.  Due to the location of Koh Lanta being far away from the mainland of Thailand, this is sometimes difficult so they are accepting both volunteers and donations.  Anyone visiting Thailand can come here and help out.  There is no cost for doing so (though donations are encouraged), so all it costs is your time!

Below is a video of the main are of the center that I captured:

A typical visit to the center usually starts out with a tour so you can become acquainted with some of the animals and hear their stories.  For example; according the the official website a dog was injured by a coconut falling from a tree and lost the use of his back legs.  Fortunately nurses were able to cure the spinal injury that he suffered from, and now he can walk again!

The founder of this Welfare Center was able to fund it by cooking at a restaurant for many years and using the profits to build the cages and medical areas within it. As of now, approximately 15,000 animals have been sterilized and saved thanks to the help and support of volunteers.  They also have mobile clinics where workers are sent to other parts of Thailand to treat animals that can’t make the way here, and also for the purpose of sterilization and vaccination.  Unfortunately the Thailand government does not give any aid to animals, so workers here are trying to spread awareness and hopefully receive some funding in the future.

After the tour, you are free to walk around Kitty City and pet the cats, or take a dog out on a walk!  I took a puppy named Hailey around the beach and went running with her.  There is also a Kitty Cafe where I bought a delicious cupcake.  All money spent here goes towards maintaining the center, and the food here is very delicious.

For those who are interested in working here, Job Opportunities are sometimes listed on the website, but it is easiest to come in-person and start volunteering first.  If you are interested in donating, please see the Donation Page.  I hope that more backpackers decide to stop here, because it really is rewarding and meaningful to everyone. ♥