By Aishuwarya Sudarshan
Everyone has a fond memory of a play ground where the See-Saw never went up or being a daredevil on the jungle gym was necessary to join the cool gang. The reason we were taken to parks as children was not just for our mothers to get some quiet time. It was also to help improve our mental and physical self. The park made us stronger not just by swinging higher than everyone else, but by teaching us new routes, new tricks, making us plan our play time and pushing us into completing the monkey bars.
Wild bears get their enrichment from climbing trees, hiding from predators, digging holes, foraging for food and various other methods. But things were slightly tougher when it came to the rescued dancing bears. Not only were they domesticated by their Kalandar owners, but they had no clue how to go about a termite mound or even try and dig a trench.
After rescuing more than 600 bears we knew we had a big tough job on our hands. We had to keep their minds stimulated and help them forget a brutal past. We had to keep in mind their mental and physical being and decided to take baby steps at helping them become wild bears again.
Our first step was to introduce them back to climbing. To improve their mobility and reduce the Abnormal Repetitive behaviour seen in most dancing bears. The Climbing Frame started off as a one story platform with wooden rungs used for foothold. They were made with thin logs of wood and rope. We never realized the strength of a full grown bear until we saw one break the entire frame in a fit of anger. Over the years we have succeeded in making stronger frames where 3- 5 bears can climb on at the same time.
From frames we gradually progressed to Hammocks. We started making them out of large jute bags that were attached on 4 corners to strong logs of wood. Apart from a few instances where a bear has pulled out the entire hammock, we were successful. Today, our hammocks vary from high ones that are made of fire hose, to ones that can fit two bears (or three cubs) and are attached to a climbing frame.
In the last few years various enrichments have been approved by the bears and a lot of them were canned after being thrown into the bin. But after many trials and even more errors we stumbled upon 2 methods that were and still are winners. The fruits barrels and the termite mound.
The Fruit Barrel was an easy contraption that involved 3 pieces of wood and a big drum. All you needed to do was make holes at a distant all around the drum and on the two ends. Push a stick through and voila. The barrels were filled with fruits and only if rolled would the fruits drop. The most hilarious visual is to watch the cubs roll the barrel and try and push their snout inside. It took them a while to get the hang of how the barrel rolled but once they caught on, there was no rolling back!!
The Termite Mounds were an experiment that turned out perfectly. The idea began as a play toy for the cubs where a slightly out of shape bucket was used to introduce them to sucking liquids and mashed fruits. The bucket took a beating after the cubs started to grow and we needed sturdier things to survive their wrath. That was when a large cemented mound was made with pipes at various levels. This was a success with the cubs at all our centers and was also introduced to the blind bears.
Our latest and by far the most exciting enrichment was introduced to us by the generous and kind Free the Bears Fund volunteers. They brought along with them a wonderful innovation called Aussie Dog Balls that was created to help equines with mental and physical enrichment. Today it is a craze with the pets and wild animals that are bred in captivity. These balls are round and made of a hard material that is light and can take a few thrashings. It has an opening on one side through which fruits and various treats are put in. it is then rolled into the enclosure and the enriching part is to see how many bears use skill instead of strength to get the food out. We were amazed to see the cubs dig out the food quicker than the others because of their small paws.
Each enrichment that is added to the enclosure always assures 2 things, 1. To see a bearâ€™s hidden strength being used in attempting to destroy the enrichment, 2. The joy in watching even the laziest bear try his hand at the enrichment and work it out before he goes back to his old spot. It truly is an enriching experience!!
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