After finishing our two weeks at Elephant Nature Park, Michelle, Jenna and I headed off for 3 weeks of independent travel in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. After adventuring and relaxing, we headed back to Laos ready to get back to work! We flew into Vientiane, Laos and were picked up by a taxi to travel the two hours to the Laos Wildlife Rescue Centre.
The Laos Wildlife Rescue Centre (LWRC) is in the process of taking over the Laos Zoo. A very wealthy Thai-Chinese family owns the Laos Zoo and over the last few years has been enlisting outside aid in an attempt to improve the welfare of the animals and the enclosures they are living in. They are fortunate to have now enlisted the help of Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand in assisting the new Laos Wildlife Rescue Centre. LWRC’s managers Michelle and Sebastian are starting from scratch, and tackling one project at a time. It’s refreshing to hear their realistic view that it will take not days, weeks or months to achieve the goals they have set for themselves and the animals that will be under their care, but years. They hope to eventually transition the entire zoo over to a wildlife rescue and only have guided visitor tours as opposed to being a full-fledged zoo. It will most definitely be a long road ahead of them, but they are tackling each day with a positive mindset, hard work, and perseverence. Sometimes with the difference in culture (things often run at a different speed than we are used to in Western Countries) and the language barrier, perseverence is very important. They have a great team and I am sure that they will succeed!
As volunteers at LWRC we did a lot of daily animal enrichment, feedings, carpentry, and enclosure cleaning. It freed up the management staff to allow them to spend more time organizing some of the bigger projects starting soon, such as building a few entirely new “Primate Forest” enclosures, improving the elephant enclosure, and finding spaces for the new animals that people drop off every few days. Many of the locals in Laos bring animals to LWRC after finding them in abused situations, or rescuing them from the different trades. While there, a python was brought in and it was our job to create a suitable temporary habitat for it, as they were hopeful that it would be able to be released into the wild later.
Another one of our daily duties was to feed 4 baby Asiatic Black Bears. They ranged in age from 3-5 months and were brought in by tourists who found them for sale at the market on the Vietnam-Laos border. LWRC would prefer not to support the purchase of any animals at markets such as this as it does support the trade, however of course they took them in to provide care. At this age they are fed a meal of powdered milk, bananas and cucumbers 4 times a day. We would start our day at 7:30 am feeding the bears breakfast before we ate our own breakfast, and end at 7:30 pm feeding them dinner. Just like all animals, Mobi, Slow, Forest and Alex all had different personalities but were united in their love of meal-time- when they saw us coming with the food they all got very vocal and excited! It took some practice, but by the end of the week we had perfected feeding them without spills, escape attempts, or tussles over the last banana piece. Their enclosure and feeding requiring some interaction with humans is not ideal, but it’s a necessity as they work to create improved enclosures, especially with the small size of the cubs! Of course, they also often get enrichment in the form of fruit popsicle treats. We fill empty yogurt cups with cut up fruit, add water and freeze it to create a popsicle treat that the cubs love! Unfortunately while we were there, their GI systems weren’t happy with one of the fruits in the popsicle and they all got diarrhea. LWRC vet Dr. Sophie changed their feeding schedules to smaller more frequent meals: every 3 hours starting at 7am and going until 1am, and the addition of antibiotics and activated charcoal tablets mixed in with honey. A few days later we were happy to see solid bowel movements yet again, and of course were excited to go back to regular sleeping schedules ourselves!
Another daily activity we participated in was grass collection to supplement the deers’ diet. As pictured below, we followed behind some of the very lovely and helpful local ladies as they cut grass and we piled it into bags to cart it to hand out to the different deer enclosures.
Enrichment was also a huge part of what we did while volunteering at LWRC. As primates require lots of enrichment, we made different things each day. Some days it was a water bottle with holes cut in it filled with fruit and grass, other days it was PCV pipes with sticks and grass in it blocking the way to the fruit so the macaques would have to work to get the fruit out. We also made them fruit popsicles like we did for the bears, and wrapped fruit in leaves with vines so they would have to unwrap them. Another enrichment they enjoy is just piling long grass in their enclosure and dispersing seeds throughout it so they have to pick through the grass to find the seeds. We created a new enrichment prototype with the help of our volunteer coordinator, Andy. Sawing logs into puzzle pieces, fitting them together on a rod and then smearing jam inbetween the pieces so the macaques have to move the puzzle pieces around to get at the jam.
We also did enrichment with some of the adult Asiatic Black Bears. Filling tires with fruit and grass and hanging them up around their enclosure was a common one, as was hiding mangos in their enclosure and leaving them fruit juice scent trails to the mangos. Below there is also a few pictures of some of the carpentry work we did to make wooden houses to place inside enclosures for protection from the elements.
What was arguably our favourite time of the day was before or after lunch. We discovered that the zoo’s otter LOVED to play with streams of water from the hose. So we made it a daily habit to stop by for 20 minutes during our lunch break and spray the hose around the enclosure for the otter to play with. Consequently, we also named him Poseidon. 🙂
We were lucky enough to be able to observe or assist with some medical procedures while there as well. I was able to assist with anesthesia during a complicated canine spay, as well as recovery of a few other procedures, including a dart-tranquilized macaque in order to transport him to a different enclosure and for medical treatment. We saw two major procedures while there: one was a dental on Ursula, a 25 year old Malayan Sun Bear, and the second was both a hernia repair and a dental on a macaque. Ursula had a history of dental issues and had had all of her teeth except her 4 canine pulled previously. They found that she had an abscess running from one of her top canines all the way through a sinus and it drained medial to her eye. The vets Zoe and Sophie drained and cleaned the abscess but were unable to successfully pull that tooth out. They cleaned the remaining teeth, and are hoping to successfully pull the abscessed tooth out in a few weeks with the delivery of some more advanced dental equipment. Ursala is now on a diet of mashed food and soft fruit.
The macaque was darted and rushed from his enclosure to the clinic, where they placed an IV catheter and got started prepping him. He had an hernia, which upon opening they discovered that his bladder had moved and adhered to his testicle over time. They carefully separated the two, removing the attached testicle, and performing a vasectomy to his remaining testicle. Over time, they hope to sterilize all the male macaques at the zoo, but it is important to perform a vasectomy rather than remove the testicles in order to keep the primates producing testosterone so that dynamics within the family groups do not change dramatically.
Overall, it was a fulfilling and tiring week. While we may not have been personally performing life-saving procedures, it was nice to be able to help out both an organization full of hard-working staff that appreciate the assitance, as well as helping to improve any enclosures we could and making sure as many animals were provided with enrichment as possible. We learnt a lot about handling wildlife species, animal husbandry, and some normal behaviors for different species. I think I speak for all 3 of us when I say I hope I get the opportunity to return to the Laos Wildlife Rescue Center in a few years (maybe as a working wildlife veteriarian- you never know!) to see the fruits of all their hard work and see that their goals have become a reality to provide all the zoo species wonderful lives with enriched enclosures and proper nutrition. If anyone wants to make a difference, LWRC is a wonderful place to volunteer your time or resources! Take a peek at their facebook page for more updates on what’s going on at LWRC: https://www.facebook.com/LaosWildlifeRescue?fref=ts
Cheers from SE Asia,