Caring For Blind Sloth Bears At Wildlife SOS

June 14, 2023 | By Avni Gupta
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Each sloth bear under our care has come with a tainted past, a past filled with trauma and fear. The story of most of these bears finds its root in the ‘dancing’ bear practice, and these bears have experienced pain that is even more intense than one can imagine. While the rescued bears are riddled with physical and psychological trauma, some require special attention due to a loss of vision or blindness.

Wildlife SOS has rescued and cared for several blind sloth bears. [Photo © Wildlife SOS/Dr. Rajat Kulkarni]

The Story of Devi

Devi, now a 23-year-old sloth bear at the Bannerghatta Bear Rescue Centre, was rescued from the ‘dancing’ bear trade in the year 2006 by our team. The initial examination revealed that the bear had corneal opacity due to a past injury. However, as time passed by, the opacity eventually escalated into cataract and impeded her vision. Devi is now completely blind. 

While she used to interact with fellow bears Odum and Dhruv frequently, Devi prefers to spend time by herself. Our team has provided her with an enclosure next to the veterinary clinic so that she can be monitored closely, as and when necessary. Every day, her caregiver brings Devi a fruit platter comprising freshly chopped melons, bananas, and mangoes. Using her strong sense of smell, Devi confidently walks to the treats and is quick to gobble up all the pieces in succession! The caregiver has observed Devi to be slightly wary and startled only when bears residing in nearby fields produce loud noises. 

Our team has provided Devi with enrichments like bamboo stalks and peanut butter-smeared balls. [Photo © Wildlife SOS/Ramesh K]

Keeping her visual disability in mind, the team has prepared Devi’s enclosure in a way that she can navigate it with ease. The field also has a pool, which the caregiver regularly fills with clean, refreshing water. While Devi avoids climbing trees, she uses simple enrichments and spends ample time digging up holes in her field. Our veterinary team ensures conducting periodical medical checkups and administering eye drops when required. 

What Causes Blindness in Bears?

The eyes are sensitive organs, which comprise several delicate internal as well as external components. The cornea is an external structure and is one of the most important parts of the eye that acts as the primary filter for light to pass. Next, the lens is a transparent internal structure that curves the light to help the eye focus. The retina is the innermost structure where light is converted into electric signals for the brain to turn into images.

If any of these are affected, it can lead to partial or complete blindness.

[Graphic © Wildlife SOS/Avni Gupta]

For our rescued sloth bears, the prime reasons for loss of vision stem from their painful past of being ‘dancing’ bears. Besides old age, other factors have caused visual impairment of sloth bears:

  1. Anatomical (physical) injuries – When sloth bears are captured to ‘dance’ for public amusement, their muzzles are pierced with a hot iron rod for a rope to be passed through it. As they proceed to entertain humans, the rope is tugged and it frequently brushes against the eyes, damaging the cornea and leading to corneal ulceration, which is extremely agonising. The cornea is the only part of the body with no blood supply and requires immediate external intervention when damaged. While the muzzle and other parts tend to heal over the years, eyes need intensive treatment and therapy. Thus, utmost neglect of these physical injuries causes blindness in sloth bears.
The rope used to make them ‘dance’ would often cause physical injuries to bears’ eyes when tugged. [Photo © Wildlife SOS]
  1. Physiological function impact – Naturally, sloth bears are nocturnal animals, and they prefer resting in their dens during the daytime. It is only during the late evening hours that they step out to forage. However, when young bears are forcefully taken away from their natural habitat and pushed into the cruel life of ‘dancing’, they are exposed to long hours of bright sunlight. This causes retinal detachment, which is another cause of loss of vision. 
  1. Malnourishment – In the wild, sloth bears actively feed on flowers, plants, seeds, insects, honey, and animal matters. This fulfils their requirement of micronutrients, vitamin A, and carotene, all of which are essential in maintaining a healthy vision. However, when kept in captive conditions, a lack of basic nourishment leads to an internal imbalance, eventually resulting in blindness among other issues.
Lack of nourishment and care for captive sloth bears eventually leads to loss of vision. [Photo © Wildlife SOS]

Specialised Care for Blind Sloth Bears

Equipped with state-of-the-art medical facilities, the Wildlife SOS centres provide personalised regimens to all rehabilitated animals. The veterinary staff has years of training at their hand, which enables them to treat the animal to the best of their abilities. They regularly provide sloth bears with eye drops, painkillers, and antibiotics. Blind sloth bears are given cooked carrots in their daily meals along with additional minerals and multivitamin supplements.

Usually, blind sloth bears are given limited access and kept in separate fields, to avoid any unintentional harm from fellow bears. While generally the fields are surrounded by a wired fence, enclosures for blind sloth bears generally have nets or protected walls. Platform enrichments are generally built at low levels and parallel to the ground so that no bears face trouble in accessing them.

Low-lying and simple enrichments are set up for blind sloth bears. [Photo © Wildlife SOS/Shresatha Pachori]

As a mindful strategy for blind sloth bears, the team ensures their fields have no obstructions like stones and heavy, tall, mobile, or complex structural enrichments. The caregivers actively observe the bears for any signs of distress and instantly remove any objects from their fields that could potentially harm their soft soles. While bringing them meals, caregivers make sounds that guide the bears into the dens. The team also hangs bells around enrichments to help the bears be well aware as they engage with them.

Sloth Bears at Wildlife SOS

Sloth bears are known to have poor auditory sense and they majorly rely on their sense of smell and vision. Thus, those with a lack of vision require extensive care and attention. In nearly three decades of tending to distressed animals, our team has dealt with several cases involving blind sloth bears. Each case is unique and novel in its own way, and our team of caregivers and veterinary staff closely studies every individual before charting out their care plan.

Percy, a partially blind sloth bear, resides at the Bannerghatta Bear Rescue Centre. [Photo © Wildlife SOS/Ramesh K]

Our team also invites experts from foreign countries like the UK, who bring with them sophisticated equipment to detect serious eye problems like glaucoma, which is again a troubling condition involving an increase in intraocular, or fluid pressure of the eye. In the past, our veterinary team has collaborated with trained ophthalmologists to set up intensive camps and conduct examinations for over 30 bears residing at Agra Bear Rescue Facility (ABRF) as well as Bannerghatta Bear Rescue Centre (BBRC). Complicated procedures such as enucleation, meaning the removal of the eye, have also been performed in extreme cases.

Currently, the team at ABRF is providing care to three blind sloth bears: Archana, Jamalbi, and Mustab. These bears have grown comfortable with fellow bears and prefer interacting with each other. At BBRC, the 24-year-old Percy is a partially blind sloth bear, who shares his enclosure with Megha.

Our team provided care to Gulabo, a blind sloth bear at the Van Vihar Bear Rescue Facility till she passed away in 2022. [Photo © Wildlife SOS/Dr. Rajat Kulkarni]

Rescued bears at our facilities have been able to receive medical attention, nutritious meals, and a life of humane care — all of which were denied to them under captivity. If you’d like to contribute towards the welfare of sloth bears rehabilitated at the Wildlife SOS centres, donate here.

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