Latitude Adjustment note: Here’s Part 2 of the three-blog series from our friends Sunny and Kevin Branson, who visited the headquarters of Wildlife SOS on a Founders’ Trip to India earlier this year. (Don’t miss Part 1: The Elephants of India’s Wildlife SOS.) In this post, Sunny describes the Agra Bear Sanctuary and the amazing turnaround story of the sloth bears. Enjoy!
By Sunny Branson
Another highlight of the Wildlife SOS Founders’ Trip for Kevin and me was visiting the Agra Bear Sanctuary. Bears are where it all began for me, and for Wildlife SOS too! The Agra Bear Rescue Facility is the largest sloth bear rescue center in the world. Most of these bears have been rescued from the “dancing bear” practice that I mentioned in Part 1, and they have the scars on their muzzles to prove it.
About Sloth Bears
The Indian Sloth Bear has a shaggy black coat, long muzzle, protruding lip, and a distinct white V-shaped patch on the chest. Their diet consists of fruits, berries, flowers, honeycombs, larvae, and insects. But they love termites. So much so, that these bears have developed floppy lips and a gap between their front teeth to “vacuum” up termites. They can also close their nostrils to keep insects from getting up their nose while eating. They get their name from their long, curved claws similar to a sloth’s claws. These claws allow the bears to penetrate termite mounds, which can be rock hard.
For more than 400 years, sloth bears had been poached by the Kalandar community for use as dancing bears to entertain the emperors during the Mughal era. Over centuries, as the kingdoms in India disappeared, the dancing-bear trade became a cheap roadside entertainment for villagers and tourists. With no anesthesia, a red hot poker rod would be driven through the muzzle of the baby bear. A rope would then be strung through the painful piercing, and tugged to induce “dancing” on demand; for many bears, a life at the end of a rope was all they ever knew.
Enter Wildlife SOS
With cooperation from government officials and partner organizations, Wildlife SOS has been able to eradicate the dancing bear practice, having rescued and rehabilitated more than 620 dancing bears. These bears are now living peacefully at the WSOS sanctuaries and will never again have to endure cruelty.
This sanctuary is a dream for bears. While it will never replace a wild habitat, WSOS does everything it can to simulate what the bears would have in the wild, plus some added man-made enrichments. The bears have trees to climb, jungle-gyms, tire swings, pools, and so much more. Most importantly, they have people who have their best interests at heart.
We toured the facility and distributed breakfast to the bears. I was taken by their huge, silly personalities. The bears were playful with each other and eager for food, some of them pouncing around in excitement as they watched us approach. I loved listening to the caretakers, who talk about the bears as if they’re their children. They know the bears’ personalities, idiosyncrasies, and habits, and could identify the sounds they make and what they might mean.
I had a mission at the bear sanctuary. I had to find Rose, who I’d followed since her rescue in 2016. She was rescued as a baby, found with a bloody stub instead of a paw, which was severed by a vicious jaw trap. She cowered for weeks, unsure of her situation and missing her mother, who is thought to have been killed. Once Rose learned she was in a safe place, she started exploring, limping around using her muzzle as her missing leg.
Today, at WSOS, Rose is a fit and healthy bear who can climb trees better than most! Here’s a video that tells Rose’s story:
Rose has many friends at the sanctuary but she and Elvis are especially close. Side note: Rose’s plight inspired WSOS to petition Amazon India to remove hundreds of animal snares and traps from its site. And they were successful!
Thoughts of a Bear Biologist
Wes Larson, a bear biologist as well as the host of Great Big Story’s Mission Wild, was a participant on the Founder’s Trip. His testament meant more to me than anything.
He said, “Generally when I go to a preserve, rescue, or zoo, I can quickly tell if captive bears are being treated well. I can honestly say I’ve never seen happier-looking bears than I met at the Wildlife SOS Agra Bear Sanctuary. With their tortuous past behind them, these sloth bears were too habituated to people to be released to the wild, but now get to live in a safe and beautiful enclosure with tons of enrichment and natural habitat. It made me emotional to think about where they had been and where they are now, and I can’t say enough about the positive impact that Kartick and Geeta and the rest of the team have made on the species.”
Kevin was able to have some one-on-one time with a bear named Mowgli, and he said this brief experience was the highlight of the trip for him. Mowgli was found at just 10 weeks old orphaned and struggling to nurse from the body of his mother who was electrocuted by poachers. He was initially scared and confused, terrified of humans and cried endlessly.
With time, Mowgli learned to trust his keepers and the vets. He is now the most outgoing and silly bear at the sanctuary relishing in his interaction with humans. He’s another rising star of target training. He will present his mouth so the vets can check his teeth, and will present his paw if drawing blood is necessary. Thankfully, he is a very healthy bear, so doesn’t need medical treatment, but he’s been a perfect model for helping the keepers learn how to use target training on bears. (In our first post, we described how the keepers at the elephant facility are using target training with Laxmi the elephant, to great success.)
Another highlight at the bear sanctuary was meeting the Weasleys. These cubs were named after the Weasley family from Harry Potter: Ron, Ginny, and Charlie. They were seized from poachers near the Indo-Nepal border in a covert operation with Forest Watch. The bears required extensive medical treatment after suffering significant trauma and abuse.
You wouldn’t know that to see them now! The day we were there, the Weasley family entertained the group from a high-rise path overlooking their enclosure. They climbed on hammocks, mock-fought with each other, and played with enrichments, which kept them engaged and curious.
Watch this video of the Weasleys and you’ll see what I mean.
My sponsored bear, Ginny!
When I got home from India, I decided to sponsor one of the Weasleys – Ginny! Ginny is the youngest and the introvert of the lot. Ginny is on a special diet including fruits, honey laced porridge, nuts, and dates. There’s also a steady routine of multivitamin supplements provided to keep up her strength and regain the luster of her black coat.
Ginny is quite curious, and her first few weeks at WSOS were spent exploring every nook and
cranny of her enclosure. The introduction to enrichments was a very pleasant surprise for her.
After that, it was impossible to distract her from them. Ginny and her best friends spend a lot of
time climbing up trees and enjoying their hammocks.
Being a sponsor, I get updates on Ginny via email, like this one, “Ginny ambled over to the pit she dug the day before – it has been filled with hay by her keepers – she turned it into a snuggly bed and flopped down. She squints as Ron suddenly mock-charges Charlie and her, gets up to avoid the bouncing pair, and finds another quiet spot in a sunny patch to rest. Nothing could get her too excited on such a wonderful day.”
I love the personal connection I feel sponsoring a specific animal.
While Wildlife SOS has eradicated the dancing-bear practice in India, poaching of cubs continues due to demands across the border, so they can’t let their guard down. Also, donations for the bears has tapered off dramatically.
People are great to rally around a rescue-operation with donations, but now that all the bears are rescued, WSOS doesn’t have much income for the bears. It’s concerning because they still need to care for the bears’ day-to-day needs. I thought an organization like this must get some government funding, but it turns out they are 100% dependent on donations.
In addition to the sanctuaries, Wildlife SOS cares for wild bear populations. They treat bears caught in human/wildlife conflicts, and those injured by snares or poachers. When they can, they release them back into the wild once they are rehabilitated.
Our Turn to Help
Kevin and I were so taken with the bears, we’ve decided to help. We each made a single donation to the bear program, and, as I mentioned before, I became a monthly sponsor of Ginny Weasley. Kevin also became a monthly donor but without specifying a particular animal.
Monthly sponsorships are an important way for WSOS to care for the animals, giving them the opportunity to budget and plan so the animals get everything they need. Info on sponsoring can be found on the Wildlife SOS sponsorship page.
The Agra Bear Sanctuary was an experience I’ll never forget. The veterinarians and vet facilities are top-notch and the staff had clear devotion to their wards. Geeta and Kartick were with us each day providing unique insight into the beginning of Wildlife SOS and their love for these bears.
Stay tuned for Part 3 of the Founders Trip – Ranthambore Safari (and my Top 5 Tips you won’t find in the guide books!)
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