I was so excited this month to get to see my favourite bear in the world, Blue, the sun bear who learned to walk and touch millions of lives across the world! Find out how he is doing now that he is all grown up!
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Chapter 1 - Arrival
In 2014, a sun bear cub was rescued by Cambodia's Wildlife Rapid Rescue Team, a joint teamrun by the Cambodian government and an NGO called Wildlife Alliance. Cambodia is very lucky, one of the few countries in South East Asia with strong wildlife laws and the power and will to enforce it. Whenever bears are confiscated, they are taken to Free the Bears' sanctuary at Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre, outside of the capital, Phnom Penh.
Bears are farmed for their bile in many countries, but not in Cambodia. While using bear bile may be a traditional medicine, intensive bile farming is a relatively new activity which never gained traction in Cambodia thanks to pressure groups and strict law enforcement. The biggest problems for Cambodian bears is deforestation and poaching.
After a tip-off from locals in the South-West, this baby bear was confiscated from a village in November 2014 from a blue plastic basket, hence his name.
During his initial check up it was obvious something was wrong. The front half of his body was always flopping down, his spine wasn't strong. He couldn't walk, instead pushing himself forwards along the floor using only his back legs. It seemed he was in pain.
Free the Bears sought expert advice from vets in Cambodia and across the world, and roughly half of them recommended that Blue be put to sleep.
Your first reaction might be to think these vets are uncaring. But these decisions are never made lightly, and not a reflection of the skill of the vet either. In fact you could argue the opposite, that caring too much might allowing an animal to suffer needlessly in pain against medical advice.
What it does show is how bad Blue's situation was, and why multiple expert opinions are always sought. As with all the best charities, while the final decision must always lie with the medical experts, everyone's opinion matters. The FTB staff have decades of experience caring for bear cubs.
FTB took the decision to give Blue a chance. X-rays showed his spine was deformed and, while the chances of a full recovery were not huge, he still had a chance and the pain could be managed.
Blue was given the same care that all cubs got, with all the nutrition and 24-hour care they need.
He spent most of his time on the ground, crawling short distances, pushing himself some of the way, or just resting. The 'Cub Dad' Mr. Heng encouraged Blue to climb and exercise as much as possible, helping him to walk outside and hiding treats around the climbing frames in his den to push him that little bit farther each day.
It didn't look as if he was improving greatly over the first couple of weeks, but it's hard to tell while they are growing so quickly.
Chapter 2 - A Little Help From My Friends
Then came Bearzilla.
Called Baker when he first arrived a few weeks after Blue, this little monster was soon nicknamed Bearzilla because of his larger-than-life character. FTB raise money by naming the bears and thanks to a generous donor, Bearzilla became his official name.
He was the same age as Blue, but couldn't be more different. He couldn't stay still for a second, and despite the tragic beginnings that every rescue bear cub went through, this cub was intent on showing everyone who was boss. Bear cubs who are orphaned so early in life are unlikely to be able to survive in the wild. Where possible of the same age and species, they are introduced to other bears as soon as it is safe to do so, to make sure they can get along well with others.
As soon as he saw Blue, he didn't let up. Every minute of every day, Bearzilla was bothering him, wrestling him, keeping him moving all the time (and teaching him to fight back!).
With this constant physio-bear-apy, Blue's movement was getting better every day. As well constant care from the on-site vets, FTB continued to make sure that Blue was monitored by specialists around the world. As well as x-rays and medical files, we took videos and photos for remote vets to monitor his posture and the way he walked.
Having followed Blue's story from the beginning, I put together a video which quickly went viral. Over a million people watched his inspiring recovery over the first six months of his life, being shared on countless newspapers and websites across the world.
Chapter 3 - Becoming a Bear
Having worked so closely with FTB and followed him as he grew, he has a very special place in my heart. I moved away from Cambodia, and 18 months after Blue was rescued, I was so excited to go back and see him.
Since I last saw him, FTB have continued to expand their facilities as one of the best sanctuaries in the world, and Blue had been moved from the nursery into a new habitat for youngsters, a bear pre-school. I have spent so much time with Blue and poring over his photos and videos, I was sure I would recognise him even though he will have double in size. Blue, Bearzilla and three other bears were happily playing together, and when I first saw them, I had no idea which was which.
That made me feel sad for a second, we all like to think we have a special connection with animals we love. But I realised that was an amazing thing. Blue was no different from any of these healthy bears.
I knew the shape of Blue's chest marking, which is an easy way to identify bears, but as it happens I didn't need to find him.
Two of the bears were running around the habitat, wrestling and biting each other and rolling head over heels. One of them mostly wrestled from the ground, one of them was jumping on him from above.
It was Blue and Bearzilla, friends for life.
FTB still have to monitor Blue until he is fully grown, another year or two. But for now the future looks good. He's becoming a real bear, but unlike Bearzilla, he is still missing one thing.
Blue is the only bear who has never been officially named. The naming process is used by FTB to raise money directly for the bears, for their food and enrichment, and the new habitats like the one Blue is in now.
Stay tuned for an upcoming mission to raise enough money to let Blue keep his name permanently, and raise much needed funds for him and the wonderful charity that gave him a chance.
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