How fun and games are helping two rescued bear cubs overcome circus trauma

07 June 2019

While recently rescued moon bear cubs Sugar and Spice are still fearful of people, carers are winning their trust with love, patience and bubble bath.

When Animals Asia’s rescuers freed moon bear cubs Sugar and Spice from a circus in Vietnam in April, the cruelty ended forever.

However, the work to gain Sugar and Spice’s trust and provide them with a lifetime of care was just beginning.

So far, bigger sibling Spice has proven to be very confident, exploring her den, bonding with her carers and playing with delight. She particularly loves dried fruit and playing with hessian sacks.

V204 Spice(2)

But little sister Sugar is much more timid. More than a month on from the rescue Sugar is still very nervous around people and chooses to spend most of her time on a high platform in the den, only occasionally descending to collect apples.

Animals Asia Vietnam Bear and Vet Team Director Heidi Quine said:

“The team has been carefully monitoring Sugar and Spice to understand how they are adapting to sanctuary life and unfortunately Sugar remains very nervous around people.

“When she hears people walking past or the doors opening, her eyes widen, the whites showing her fear. The horrific conditions and trauma she experienced in the circus will take a long time to overcome, but slowly we are regaining her trust.”

Sugar and Spice were both poached from the wild and ended up performing on stage at Central Circus in the Vietnamese capital of Hanoi.

They were muzzled and forced to walk on their hind legs in front of large, noisy audiences. Video footage taken by Animals Asia investigators revealed the duo were even made to ride motorbikes on stage. When they crashed, they were pulled back to their feet using leads tied around their necks and put straight back on the bikes.

Thankfully, Animals Asia’s alerted the authorities and the duo are now safely in the cub house of Animals Asia’s Vietnam sanctuary.

Their carers have filled their den with play items such as hessian sacks, puzzle feeders and even a paddling pool filled with child-friendly bubble bath to stimulate the bears’ sense of curiosity and fun.

Animals Asia staff have also been working to gain the trust of the bears by training them to come to the front of the den or even move between dens when called to receive high value treats.

Animals Asia Bear Manager Sarah van Herpt said:

“Trust-building exercises are hugely important. Not only do they reassure the bears that we are here to help, not harm, them, it also provides stimulation and enables us to more efficiently manage them in a sanctuary environment. 

“Sugar is by no means a calm happy bear yet, but with Spice setting such a good example and being close by to reassure her, we know it will only be a matter of time before she gains confidence and learns to believe she is finally safe.”

Trust building exercises allow carers to ask the bears to move between dens, into weigh stations and transport cages and even to show certain parts of their bodies which can be photographed to assist with health care.

In Sugar’s case, the primary goal of trust building is currently to build a bond that will help her relax, but it also allows carers to ensure she is getting enough food and nutrition.

Sugar and Spice are due to end their 45-day quarantine period in early June at which point their carers will begin to consider outdoor access for the cubs.

Heidi said:

“Regaining the confidence to return to the outdoor world can be difficult for rescued bears, so the team will want to make sure both bears are feeling safe and confident in the den environment before introducing them to the outdoor enclosure. Our primary concern will always be the welfare of the bears and doing our utmost to minimise any possible stress.

Our work doesn’t end when a bear is rescued. That’s when it really begins… 

As cubs, Sugar and Spice can expect to live up to 30 years. And with no survival skills or safe forests for release, they will likely spend the rest of their lives in our care.

That’s a huge commitment we can only make with your help.

A gift from you today could help support the long-term care and rehabilitation of bears like Sugar and Spice. If you can, please help.