This post will be a post a little different than what you usually find on Ye Olde Blogge. As a Christmas present to Ye Olde Family we visited the Wildlife Alliance’s Zoological Park and Wildlife Rescue Center at Phnom Tamao. We were so overjoyed by our experiences that I just have to share them.
As many of you know, my wife and I are international school teachers. Before any new readers get carried away with our self-sacrifice and martyrdom of teaching indigent nationals, we don’t. We teach the children of diplomats, NGO officers, corporate executives, and wealthy nationals. We teach Western curricula. We’ve done this for the past 20-odd years starting by teaching English in South Korea and turning to international schools after our daughter was born. Teaching ESL in South Korea was fun and rewarding, it wouldn’t allow us to educate our daughter there since international school tuition is typically 15 to 40,000 dollars a year. A bit beyond our combined income, so we turned to international schools. It is a fun interesting way to see the world. Now we live in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
Since we’re living in the time of #COVID19, we aren’t leaving Cambodia for a bit. We’ll never have a month to spend in quarantine — two-weeks quarantine upon arrival wherever we go, and two weeks upon our return — so it just isn’t worth it. That gives us plenty of opportunity to explore Cambodia, so we decided to visit the animal rehabilitation center.
We’ve done a lot of eco-tourism over the years, and they are all better than the alternatives, so don’t hesitate to support eco-tourism… as long as it isn’t a scam, that is, since there are plenty of those out there. Part of what made it special is the adjustments they’ve had to make due to the #COVID19 pandemic! They take only one small group of tourists on a tour at a time! So, it was the three of us with our two guides! It was a deeply personal experience because of it.
Their set up is hands-on, too. We were interacting with the animals as closely as safety would allow. All of the animals we were brought into contact with would not be rehabilitated for a variety of reasons. Suffice it to say that they are all damaged in some way that precludes them from being released. To be clear, a small minority of the animals that we saw are going to be released, but for the most part the ones we saw will not. I make this point because they display symptoms of anxiety due to living in captivity, but it is better than the painful sure death they would face if they weren’t held, and they generate needed income to help support the many many individuals who are rehabilitated and released.
One last note before we start our photographic tour of the facility, I’m sure I’ve made errors in the details. I’ve done my best to represent everything as far as I know and can remember, but there are bound to be errors. They are mine not the good folks that work there.
I’ll divide the tour into several segments headlined by one of the animals we saw.
She is the first animal that you meet there! She exudes her gratitude and joy of life as she roams the forest and lives with her handlers who have become her herd.
And, you get to feed her, which is one reason she is so happy! Apparently, elephants have favorite foods, and hers is watermelon. We got to feed her lots of watermelon and pat her as we heard her life’s story.
She is indeed lucky. She was being trafficked at the tender age of six months long before there was widespread concern in the Cambodian government for animal trafficking. The truck she was being carried in was stopped by the authorities, and she was found in the back. Alone. I think that was in 1995 or so. The facility that she lives in now wouldn’t start until 1997. I can’t remember when she arrived, but it was years ago.
You’ll notice that she has pieces of her ears removed. They had to cut them out after she got elephant herpes — who knew there was such a thing? — and it can be fatal in as little as 24 hours. A companion elephant died, and, then, she started showing symptoms. They treated her using IV’s inserted in the veins in her ears. Of course, they became infected, which caused them to be removed.
Chhouk was found quite by accident in the early years of the 2000’s. As a year-old elephant, he had been caught in foot snare meant for smaller animals. Unlucky him. His food was small enough to trip the snare. Unlucky him, his herd moved on. Lucky for him, a few days later a wildlife organization was performing a census of the wildlife in the area and found him.
It took fourteen days to just get him habituated to his rescuers. Then they removed the snare and transported him to the center where about 20 centimeters of his leg was amputated. You can see the funny way he holds his right foreleg in the picture. That is to compensate for his injured left leg.
Chhouk’s Prosthetic Foot
They went to an organization that made prosthetic limbs for the victims of landmines — still a problem in Cambodia and around the world, thank you military-industrial complex! — and they designed a prosthetic foot for him. It seems to work quite well. He has use of the exercise yard where he likes to walk with Lucky.
For years, he had to have two prosthetic feet made a year at a cost of $1200.00 per foot while he grew up. Now he is not getting bigger, just taller, they can add extensions to the bottom of the foot. He has to have it changed and the stump checked for damage on a daily basis.
Long-term Effects on Chhouk
Understandably, he will never be released into the wild. Not just because of his foot, though. The incident has severely scared his psyche. He is angry and can’t really be trusted. We were told to maintain our distance even from the pen where he is kept for his daily inspections and foot maintenance. Apparently, he will strike with his trunk.
Don’t believe me? compare their eyes! Look at the stink-eye that Chhoub is laying on you as you walk past his enclosure and the pleased-look of Lucky as you stand around her.
Here, let’s look at pictures of Chhoub getting his daily inspection and boot change.
They use food and clicker training to help him to cooperate and stand in position for his inspection, stump cleaning, and boot change. They fiddle with his ears every time just in case they’ll ever need to put an IV in since he could easily get an infection in that stump. You can see that they are taking exceptional care of him. Care that deserves all of our support.
The Big Cats
They have rescued a number of big cats over the years. They are taken by people seeing to sell their parts for “medicinal” purposes and as pets. In either situation, the animals are kept in less than ideal conditions and cannot always be released into the wild.
Three tigers call the center home. Unfortunately, I could only get pictures of one and didn’t get video of it roaring and lunging at one of the keepers. The keeper was outside of the enclosure at the time and entirely safe. You’ll see the tiger walking along the fence line of its enclosure. It is actually playing with another of the staff. He would run up and down the fence and the tiger would chase him. They had a special bond with the tiger only giving him attention anytime he’s around.
Fun fact #1: Tigers like the scent of Calvin Klein’s Obsession for Men. It is so universal that tiger traps have been baited with it in the wild.
fun fact #2: tigers make lousy pets in spite of Mike Tyson’s feelings and your impression from Hangover.
They have a lone leopard. She wasn’t always alone, though. There was a second leopard with her for years, but he died about two years ago. They do keep the animals engaged by supplying a number of toys and food puzzles for them to solve.
The guide sprayed the fence and concrete base with perfume — not Calvin Klein, though, too expensive — which the leopard seemed to like judging by how much she rubbed her face in it.
Free the Bears
As you may know, moon and sun bears are kept in China and Viet Nam so that their bile may be harvested for “medicinal” purposes. That creates a market for bear capture and export throughout their habitats. Since the practice has been made illegal, though, the market has dried up and the farms closed down. It has taken a while for organizations like Free the Bears and Wildlife Alliance to build enough habitats to take them. Most of them have been removed and rehomed.
The bears at the center were rescued from exporters, though. And, some how despite their best efforts, they managed to have a cub in captivity. They discourage all of their animals from reproducing, otherwise they’d be overrun with animals to take care of. However, spaying and neutering animals runs counter to Khmer cultural values, so they have to rely on good old-fashioned abstinence.
Included in this section are the binturong or bear cats. They are truly weird animals.
I’ve only got pictures of their sun bears and not very good ones at that because I just couldn’t get a good angle on the moon bears. They only have windows on the bear enclosures, which made photography difficult. Also, the bears weren’t interested in us as visitors like the other animals were. Maybe it had something to do with visitors feeding the other animals but not the bears. I don’t know why we weren’t allowed to feed the bears and I didn’t think to ask.
There is a bonus picture of butterfly that landed on the sun bear window!
Look at the size of the feet and claws of that bear! And, they have an extra long tongue for extracting honey from hives.
Binturong or Bear Cats
The hapless binturong cannot seem to catch a break! It is commonly called a bearcat or bear cat, but it is neither bear nor cat nor the mascot of the University of Cincinnati. But, wait, it get worse! They belong to the order Carnivora, but they mostly eat fruit, which explains why they brought bananas for us to feed them! Worse, not only does no one really know how the binturong got its name, the language it derives from is extinct! Still in all, life is not all bad for the bintorung, it is only listed as vulnerable and it is typically rescued because someone tried to keep it as a pet.
Judging from their behavior, I’d say, they have it pretty good. They are arboreal and move with an incredible fluidity. They move equally well upwards and downwards as they do side to side. And, they have wicked looking teeth and claws, wild eyes with vertical pupils, and that most enviable of appendages, the prehensile tail. But, the funnest fact of all is that they smell like dirty feet which some people mistaken for buttered popcorn. I’m the popcorn maker in Ye Olde Family as well as the possessor of the smelliest feet, and this is smelly feet.
I’ll present some pictures, but I must warn you the lighting was working against us.
Ye Olde Daughter loves her some birds and has done so from a very young age. We lived in Kenya for a number of years, and it will bring out the inner birder in you. It brought it out in her in spades. When she heard that there were a number of birds here, any teenaged doubt about leaving social media for the day were left behind.
I have to say that we were treated to one of the most amazing bird displays since having left Africa. Speaking of Africa, we were surprised to find that they had two ostriches there! An,d unsurprisingly, they had hornbills. They had a number of raptors including eagles and owls, are owls raptors? Hell, if I know. If you know, set the record straight in the comments.
Two of the birds were putting quite a show on for us. The grey and white sea eagle serenaded us with loud arrhythmic screeching and the hornbill flew back and forth between purchases turning this way and that and repeatedly bowed to us.
The Monkeys and Apes
You know, you should never trust a monkey, right? They bite and they steal. Although, if you ask them, they probably don’t think of it is as theft, just admiring or greed. Anywho, anywhere we’ve been in the world where monkeys were indigenous, they’ve lived right along side people biting and stealing things if you let them. Whatever you do, don’t let them into the car. It never ends well.
Every park we’ve been to where monkeys live, there is always a troop at the gate. Here there was a thriving mob of macaques. They come running when a care drives up hoping for a hand out. just look at their sad longing faces.
Gibbons are plentiful at the rehabilitation centers that are in their habitats because people can e real bastards believing that their bones are useful as “medicine,” environmental encroachment, the weird belief that they might could make a nice pet, and as a source of bushmeat. All of which combine to make them the most endangered primate species in the world.
They are truly amazing. They have two ball-and-socket joints in their arms, one at the shoulder and the other at the wrist making them especially adept at swinging in the trees. They are said to be able to speed along Tarzan-like at 30 to 40 kph. I believe it after watching zip around their enclosures. They also have an amazing song that they sing. Wandering through the forest in Southeast Asia listening to their haunting calls is one of the real pleasures of living here.
Baby and Special Macaques and Gibbons
There are the sad residents, too. There is a lone baby gibbon that is waiting to grow up enough to join the wild troop. There is the blind macaque who lost his sight to disease and just can’t function adequately in the wild. He’ll be moved to a larger habitat once he recovers. And, there is the orphaned gibbon still being bottle fed and clinging pitifully to its stuffed animal like some common Harry Harlow experimental animal.
The Last Animal Experience
They closed the tour with the opportunity to sit in a cage with four baby macaques with food on your hands — palms up, flat on your knees, and avoiding eye contact — as the monkeys flit about filling their chin pouches — who knew macaques or any monkey had chin pouches that they filled? And the millipede that we found hiding under the concrete lining of the enclosure. The little white dots are symbiotic ticks trading a meal for the cleanliness of the millipede, don’t you know.
If you’ve enjoyed the photo tour of the Phnom Tamao Zoological Park and Wildlife Center, please consider supporting them through their Patreon page and getting a much more accurate and better photographed tour through their material there. While no animal is happy in captivity, these were as happy as possible, well cared for, and being prepared for release back into the wild as soon as they were ready and the Cambodian government gave the official okey-dokey. And, for those that can never go back, they are getting the best possible care for the rest of their lives. You can also see that your donations go to a wide spectrum of animals with a variety of needs.
It’s a photo of Lucky, the Elephant’s snout that I took with iPhone while I was at the center. It isn’t licensed and anyone may use it for any reason that they see fit without attribution.