Renowned Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie once said, “Our histories cling to us. We are shaped by where we come from.” Adichie’s words stand true for our Sloth bears too, who have been rescued from varying, stressful situations that have influenced their current needs and behaviour. For example, a Sloth bear that spent its life in the wild but is now rehabilitated at Wildlife SOS due to a lifelong injury has different needs than those of a Sloth bear who spent a major part of its life as a captive, ‘dancing’ bear.
Here, we delve into how the care provided to Sloth bears rescued from the ‘dancing’ bear trade is different from the care Sloth bears rescued from the wild need.
Sloth bears that were rescued from the brutal ‘dancing’ bear practice underwent tremendous physical abuse to make them obey their owner. One such practice of torture commonly used on ‘dancing’ bears was the complete removal of their canines. Without their sharp teeth, these powerful bears would become easier to control. When these bears arrived at Wildlife SOS to begin their new life of freedom, our veterinarians found stubs of teeth that had been left untreated. The bears developed dental infections due to exposed roots, rotting teeth, and mouth ulcerations leading to halitosis (foul breath). Thus, such bears were provided with extensive dental care such as root canals and fillings. For some bears, extractions were done to remove a partially snatched tooth or a tooth that had embedded itself in the skull bone.
For bears rescued from the wild, the situation is a bit different. If the bear is below the age of 3, it will usually have canines that are intact and require no immediate dental care. However, adult Sloth bears rescued from the wild may have broken canines. This is extremely common in the wild and does not impact a Sloth bear’s ability to hunt. Since the teeth have not been broken by force, as is the case with ‘dancing’ bears, these bears require minimal dental care.
Good Food for Good Health
For a Sloth bear who has spent its entire life in the wild, foraging for berries, flowers, and insects, adjusting to a different kind of food in a more controlled environment can be a formidable task. Thus, during the initial days, these bears are solely given raw fruits. Often jackfruits, a staple in the Sloth bear’s diet, are also sourced to ensure that their diet is complete. Fruits are smeared with honey to encourage the Sloth bear to eat, despite the sudden change in its environment. During their first few months at the rescue centre, wild Sloth bears refuse to eat in the presence of any human. Moreover, due to their nocturnal nature in the wild, such Sloth bears prefer to eat only at night. Our care team thus leaves raw food in their enclosure during sunset, allowing the bear both space and comfort.
For bears rescued from the ‘dancing’ bear trade, food provided to them during the initial days depends on their location. Bears rescued from the southern part of India are used to a diet of Ragi (finger millet) balls that were hand-fed by their Kalandar owners. Bears rescued from northern India are accustomed to Roti (flat bread). Thus, during their initial days, our team sources specific foods to feed the bears to ensure that they do not become agitated with a new meal. Many of these bears were entirely dependent on humans to hand-feed them, and would refuse to eat on their own! All our rescued ‘dancing’ bears thus slowly and steadily acclimatised to eating from bowls, without any human interference.
Providing wholesome nutrition to every rescued Sloth bear is an integral part of providing care, which is why Wildlife SOS includes a porridge, filled with essential nutritional supplements, in their diet.
Ticks, Fleas and TB
Having spent the majority of their life away from their natural habitat and amidst human dwellings, noisy cars, and pollution, ‘dancing’ bears are prone to various illnesses and bacteria. Nearly 40% of human beings carry tuberculosis (TB) bacteria, which makes these bears vulnerable to contagious disease. While most bears are carriers of a human TB that cannot spread from one bear to another, our team has to exercise extreme precautions to guard our bears against this deadly disease. Thus, ‘dancing’ bears are put on anti-TB medication on priority right after their rescue. Along with this, they are given a generic vaccination immediately after they arrive at Wildlife SOS.
Wild bears, on the other hand, having had no interaction with humans, rarely carry any bacteria or diseases. However, since some of the wild bears are rescued due to an injury or disability, they need to be monitored regularly for any symptoms of disease or infection. A wild bear is never immediately vaccinated upon coming to Wildlife SOS for treatment; if the bear is fit to be released back into the wild, no vaccination is given. It is only when the region’s forest department assigns a wild bear to permanent rehabilitation with Wildlife SOS that vaccinations are administered.
Wild bears carry more ticks and fleas than their counterparts who were victims of the ‘dancing’ bear trade. This is because ‘these bears were often covered in henna by their owners, which is a traditional antidote to fleas and ticks. Our team thus administers medication for ticks to wild bears and even removes the ticks manually before allowing the wild bear to socialise with other resident bears.
Getting to Know a Caregiver
For any bear, corresponding with humans is an unnatural experience. Thus for rescued wild bears, getting to know and trusting their caregivers is a gradual process. Our caregivers ensure that during their initial days, the bears are given space. During this time, wild bears observe other bears and their caregivers. As they slowly begin to understand that a caregiver is not a threat but a trustworthy individual, they allow the caregiver to interact with them. Such bears, however, will always retain their wild instincts and therefore, will instinctively react in defence to any unknown human presence.
The ‘dancing’ bears, on the other hand, lose their wild instincts after spending years in captivity. Most of these bears are taken away from their mothers and their natural habitat at a young age, thus they have no exposure to the ways of the wild. They tend to become dependent on humans for basic needs. Thus, the process of establishing a relationship between a ‘dancing’ bear and its caregiver is relatively easier, and shorter.
A few of these bears however retain the trauma of years of subservience and torture under their Kalandar masters. Such bears can often display aggressive behaviours. For such bears, our caregiver uses positive reinforcements for months to reassure the bear that it is no longer in danger.
At Wildlife SOS, we believe each of our bears is unique and has distinct needs. Our veterinary team thus works round-the-clock to ensure that every rescued bear lives a life of dignity and freedom.