Keeper helps rescued bears in welfare workshops

by ZSL on

ZSL keeper Matt O’leary travels to Cambodia and Laos to use his expertise to help rescued bears

Bear with enrichment ball

A 30-kilometre drive outside of Luang Prabang, Laos, sits the Kuang Si Falls, a series of beautiful waterfalls that attract thousands of tourists each year. As well as the majestic pools, the site also hosts a number of Asiatic black bears that have been recused from the illegal wildlife trade that continues to occur across South East Asia.

The Tat Kuang Si rescue centre sits inside the Kuang Si Falls and is managed by Free the Bears, a charity set up 21 years ago to ‘protect, preserve and enrich the lives of bears’.

Hundreds and hundreds of bears have been rescued by the charity from snare traps, bile farms or being used as dancing bears. Once these bears have been rescued, the aim is to rehabilitate them.

ZSL and Free the Bears joined forces in 2016, with ZSL running a series of workshops helping to train staff in how to make the lives of animals in their care even better and help improve animal welfare practices in South East Asia.

From my time working with ZSL Whipsnade Zoo’s three Sri Lankan sloth bears, I have learned that bears are an incredible family of animals that need specialist care. With this firmly in mind, I headed up workshops in Laos and Cambodia which focused on behavioural learning to improve the healthcare of the animals and environmental enrichment for bears.

The first workshop was held in the Cambodian bear sanctuary at the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre. The centre holds more than 100 bears, along with various other species including elephants and primates that have been rescued from wildlife trade or human conflict. My first two days at the Cambodian centre were spent reviewing the existing programmes used at the sanctuary, such as positive reinforcement training. This technique is used to encourage the bears to open their mouths, allowing staff to regularly monitor the animal's teeth, something which is very important for the sanctuary's sun bears as they are prone to dental health issues.

After assessing the training programmes, three days were spent working with around 15 keepers at the centre, discussing a range of topics and running practical sessions to improve some of the centre's enclosures.

ZSL keeper Matt O'leary with Free the Bears team in Laos
ZSL keeper Matt O'leary with the Free the Bears team in Laos

After the workshops in Cambodia, I travelled to Laos for the second workshop. The Tat Kuang Si Rescue Centre is a smaller centre compared with the Cambodian bear sanctuary, with just over 30 bears and a smaller team of four keepers. This gave me the opportunity to spend more time with these individuals who have not worked at the centre for very long.

One session included helping the team feed the bears at lunch time. I found that when zookeepers were feeding the bears, they would leave food in very obvious places in the enclosure which would not take the bears a huge amount of time to find. Bears generally spend a large portion of their day foraging for food and we can easily replicate this in zoos and wildlife centres. The next day I gave the team 10 minutes to feed one enclosure of bears and asked them to ensure that no food was visible. The team rose to the challenge and spent their time hiding food all over the enclosure, under rocks, in piles of leaves and in enrichment devices which in turn meant the bears spent longer foraging for food.

The workshops were very productive, with more than 20 staff responsible for the care of animals taught in two countries, with a range of theory and practical sessions and with multiple subjects covered. With more and more bears being rescued from the illegal wildlife trade, the importance of knowledgeable staff is vital to ensure the bears they save are given the best possible care.

For more information on Free the Bears, visit

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