After finding out about the Free the Bears Sanctuary a few years ago, I knew I wanted to see the sanctuary when we eventually visited Cambodia.
While in Luang Prabang in Laos, we enjoyed visiting their smaller sanctuary there, at the foot of the Kuang Si Falls. When I checked their website, I discovered the “Bear Care for the Day” tours, that they run in their Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre in Phnom Penh.
This tour sounded really interesting because you learn in detail how the centre operates and what they do for the bears. The best part is that you spend time there helping the bears as well! So without thinking twice, I booked it!
What is the Free the Bears Fund?
The Free the Bears Fund is a not-for-profit charity started by Mary Hutton, a wonderful lady from Perth, Australia.
After learning about the atrocities of bear bile farming on Australian TV, Mary knew she had to do something to help. So she went out onto the streets of Perth, collecting signatures for a petition she had created.
Many people were horrified to find out about the bile farming industry and after collecting thousands of signatures, the Free the Bears Fund charity was registered in 1995. They later joined up with Wildlife SOS and International Animal Rescue to help end the dancing bears tradition in India, with the last bears being freed in 2009.
The charity aims to rescue and rehabilitate Asian bears from bear farming, poachers and exotic pet owners. They now have 5 sanctuaries and provide lifelong care to over 220 rescued bears as well as supporting over 300 bears in India that were rescued from the bear dancing practice.
Find out more about the organisation here.
What type of bears are found at the Free the Bears sanctuary?
The most common bears at the sanctuary are the Moon Bears and the Sun Bears. Both types of bear are endangered.
Moon Bears have distinctive cream-coloured crescents on their chests and are bigger than Sun Bears. They are most commonly used in bear bile farms in China and Vietnam.
Sun Bears who are much smaller are mainly rescued from Exotic pet owners and are often kept in appalling conditions. They are named after the orange and yellow coloured markings on their chests.
What is bear bile farming?
Commercial bear bile farming started in China in the 1980s. Bear bile farming is incredibly cruel, being designed to extract bile from the gallbladders of fully conscious bears.
The bears are permanently kept in tiny cages and are often unable to turn around or even stand on all fours. Many bears are first caged as cubs, and pass away in the same cage, locked in for up to 30 years.
A permanent catheter is inserted into their gall-bladder to allow their bile to be extracted. Of course half of the time the catheter insertion is not done hygienically or by a veterinarian, so many bears develop bad infections.
The bears are starved and dehydrated, suffering from many other illnesses which remain untreated. Many end up dying from those infections or illnesses. In the bear bile farms, no-one cares. They just see them as money making machines. What a terrible, terrible life to endure.
Why is bile extracted from bears?
Bear bile has been used as traditional Chinese medicine for thousands of years. They believe it helps treat liver and gall bladder disease. It’s also said to help cure hangovers. Crazy right? There are, of course, many other available herbals and synthetic alternatives these days and they have the same medicinal properties. So this practice is totally unnecessary and should be banned. But of course, it isn’t because too much money is being made. It’s really shameful.
Why should you join the Bear Care Team for the day?
If you love animals as we do, you’ll love your time at the sanctuary. You’ll spend the day learning about the bears, the centre and helping prepare food and special treats for the bears. You’ll also meet some other rescued animals.
If you need another reason, the cost of your tour goes directly towards helping the rescued bears.
How did we spend our day?
We were picked up from the Joma Cafe in the centre of Phnom Penh (on the corner of Norodom and Street 294) at eight in the morning and driven to the rescue centre. The drive took just over an hour.
Our first sighting of the bears
When we arrived at the wildlife rescue centre we first went to say hello to the Sun Bears in their nearby enclosure. Shortly after, we visited the Moon Bears who had briefly been put into their individual pens for feeding time. They are kept separate at feeding time to avoid fighting!
Afterwards, we took a tour of the bear sanctuary and our guide gave us an educational talk about the Free the Bears Fund. Using a slide show presentation, she told us about the work that they do at their various sanctuaries.
Preparing snacks and enrichment toys
Then came the best part, preparing enrichment toys and special treats for the bears!
We made the bears some snacks that we hid in bamboo tubes and big plastic balls with holes in them. The snacks were made of turnips, mangos, crab apples, morning glory and a little bit of strawberry jam to wet their appetite!
First, we placed the turnips, mangoes, crab apples and half a spoon of jam inside the balls and bamboo tubes. We used a stick to crush the ingredients in the tubes only. Then we gave the toys a bit of a shake and used Morning Glory to plug up the holes. Finally, we smothered a bit of jam around the holes and voila. The bear treats were ready to be served! Making treats like this keeps the bears busy for a while, entertaining them in between meals.
Watching them eat!
Once we’d made the treats, we could give them to the bears. The bamboo snacks were for the Moon Bears and the balls for the Sun Bears.
The keepers called the bears over and the bears all knew it was snack time. They came running to the front of the enclosure and waited patiently for us to throw the treats over the fence. Then they spent time licking them and trying to get the goodies out.
This activity reminded us of the Kong treats that we used to give our dogs, although our dogs were certainly not as funny to watch! The bears rolled on their backs, trying all sorts of positions to get the treats out. It was hilarious and it certainly kept them busy. Watching them have all that fun and being so happy was totally heartwarming, considering the terrible past that they’d endured!
One of the Sun Bears totally missed out because for some reason he couldn’t seem to find his treat. Of course one of the other bears found it and ate it! The look on that poor bear’s face broke my heart. I so wished I had a spare treat to give him!
Lunchtime for us!
For lunch, we joined the other volunteers and staff for a traditional Khmer lunch which was really tasty. We had an hour to relax and sit in hammocks if we wanted to. We spoke to some of the volunteers and staff and found out more about the bears and the centre.
A tour of Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre
After lunch, we hopped back into the van and were taken on a tour of the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre, to meet the other resident rescued animals that the centre cares for. We saw some rescued gibbons, leopards, a Bengal tiger, elephants and even otters.
An Easter egg hunt or should I say a bear treat hunt?
Our last activity was so much fun. We joined the keepers in hiding food inside the bear’s enclosures. Of course, the bears were safely locked away in their individual pens during this time. We placed pieces of fruit and vegetables all over the enclosure. We tried to hide them as much as possible, to make them harder for the bears to find. Hopefully, it would keep them entertained for a while.
We could hear the bears getting impatient inside their pens. They knew what was out there and they couldn’t wait to find it! Once we were safely outside, they eagerly reentered their enclosure. Watching them hunt for the treats and enjoy them was so much fun! They looked for pieces of mango first which seemed to be what they liked the most.
Unfortunately, time flies when you’re having fun and it soon came time to leave. We were each given a Free the Bear t-shirt and a reusable water bottle to take home with us, which was very nice. They then drove us back to our hotel.
We had an amazing day at the Free the Bears sanctuary. We were so glad to be helping the bears, even if just for the day. While it was really sad to hear about their backstories, to see them living happy and free was wonderful.
The bears now live in lovely forested enclosures where they are cared for, fed healthy diets and loved. The sanctuary is doing a terrific job rescuing these beautiful animals. If you have time while in Phnom Penh, we highly recommend signing up to be a bear carer for the day.
The cost for the day is US$90 but it’s money well-spent as it all goes to help the Free the Bears fund. We certainly did not regret it! You can sign up for it here on the Free the Bears website.
Accommodation in Phnom Penh
To visit Free The Bears you’ll need to stay in Phnom Penh for at least a night. Use the search box below to find your accommodation in Phnom Penh: