The ‘Bear’ Necessities: Travelling with Alex Cearns of Houndstooth Studio

By Alex Cearns

The ‘Bear’ Necessities: Travelling with Alex Cearns of Houndstooth Studio
Renowned animal photographer, Alex Cearns, just got back from her most recent trip and shares her incredible experience with us here.

In June 2016, accompanied by Debora Brown (also of Houndstooth studio), I recently led fundraising animal / photography tour with World Expeditions visiting Free the Bears Fund (FTB) rescue sanctuaries in Vietnam and Cambodia. With us were 7 animal loving people who have big hearts – Angela, Dave, Di, Mary, Robert, Carmen, and Liesa. Each person contributed in many ways and even one person can make a difference.

bear-standing alex cearns

When she arrived at the FTB Cambodian Sanctuary, this sweet 4 month old sun bear cub was known by her rescue number, “193”. She is the smallest bear in the sanctuary, weighing in at 4.5 kilos. During our tour she was given her official name of “Arya Stark” by Angela who made a wonderful $3000 donation to Free the Bears Fund. This gave Angela the naming rights to bear 193 (or I should say, Arya Stark), plus sponsorship of her for the next 12 months. Being a Game of Thrones fan, Angela’s choice of name was the perfect fit for this little girl who will no doubt grow up to be strong and feisty.

A short time later Dave and Di fell in love with a 7 month old female moon bear, who was formerly known as “189”. They generously donated $3000 for her naming rights and sponsorship and 189 is now known as “Essee”, after Dave and Di’s beloved dog Essee who celebrated her tenth birthday back home in Australia while we were away. Essee bear is black, furry and cute, so is the perfect namesake for Essee dog.

The $6000 donated by Ange, Dave and Di will be wisely used by FTB and I would sincerely like to thank them so much for making such a substantial financial contribution to the ongoing care of these vulnerable and adorable cubs.

sun bear Alex Cearns

Long term FTB supporters, Mary and Robert have previously sponsored and named two bears, Jesus and Willow, and were on their 4th overseas sanctuary tour for FTB, after previously visiting bears in Cambodia, Laos and India. Mary is a FTB life member and is heavily involved in the Albany chapter of FTB. When they returned home, they sponsored two additional bears.

Whilst in Vietnam, Dave and Di spent over $500 purchasing much needed protective clothing and equipment for the Vietnam FTB Sanctuary staff, along cleaning items and hammock making material. The latter was made into a sturdy, comfortable hammock by our tour team, for a moon bear called Go, who was delighted with his new bed and proceeded to roll around in it with glee. Several members also chipped in to buy the bears dozens of coconuts and watermelons.

Carmen arranged for an article about the work of FTB to go out in the New Town and Kalamunda Toyota newsletter which is disseminated weekly to over 300 staff. Complete with some of her stunning images of the bears in Vietnam, it was an educational and informative piece.

Angela and Dave project managed the building of a climbing platform for the sun bears in Vietnam, complete with two ladders and an engineered design. The whole group also helped out with daily bear enclosure cleaning, enrichment management and food preparation, and Liesa has been conducting preliminary research for her pending PhD into the illegal wildlife trade.

We all still found time to take a few gazillion photos in there too!

Before we left home, FTB board member and Houndstooth Studio’s very own Debora Brown coordinated the collection and delivery of 24 Aussie Dog Products treat balls, which were then carried over by Angela, Di, David, Robert and Mary in their luggage. The bears were overjoyed to receive the balls, playing with them endlessly and trying to dig out the treats inside. Watching them made our eyes leak.

On top of that, our tour group as a whole donated $3500 of their tour fees ($500 per person) to FTB. These wonderful people deserve a huge, grateful pat on the back for everything they have contributed on this trip to help rescued bears. They’ve given their time, money, blood, sweat and tears … well thankfully not their blood but I’m sure they would if they thought it could help bears in some small way. We are blessed to have spent time with them all on our adventure, and the bears are lucky to have them on their team.

bear Alex Cearns

Good morning Vietnam

First we travelled to Vietnam, where we spent 3 days working and photographing at the FTB sanctuary in the Nam Cat Tien National Park. Then we flew to Cambodia, where we spent 3 days photographing at the FTB Cambodian Sanctuary in the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre.

The Call of the Wild

I’ve been photographing for FTB now as one of their photography partners, for the past four years and working with World Expeditions as a tour escort for three years. World Expeditions have been long term supporters of FTB, often running tours to the sanctuaries and donating part of each person’s tour fee to FTB. I conducted my first fundraising tour with World Expeditions for FTB in October 2014, when I travelled with a group to India to visit two bear rescue centres supported by FTB.

I was keen to conduct another tour, this time to visit Vietnam and Cambodian sanctuaries.

The Cambodian sanctuary is well established and is a world class care centre. The Vietnam sanctuary was recently taken over by FTB and plans are underway to soon build a whole new centre not far from the existing one.

bear-smiling Alex Cearns

Free The Bears

2016 is the 21st anniversary year of Free The Bears as a registered charity organisation (registered in March 2015).

Foundered in Perth by Mary Hutton in 1993, the organisation now rescues and cares for bears across South East Asia, specifically, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, with sanctuary support provided to Wildlife SOS and International Animal Rescue, their partners in India. Over 800 bears have been rescued.

FTB vision is for a world where bears are valued as an integral part of the natural environment and are no longer exploited or abused

Their mission is to protect, preserve and enrich the lives of bears throughout the world

They have 5 strategic Aims:

  1. Create and support world-class bear sanctuaries; government owned, managed to the highest level of welfare and striving towards long-term sustainability
  2. Develop alternative sustainable livelihood programmes for the community to prevent impoverished families from exploiting bears for profit
  3. Strengthen wildlife law enforcement efforts through advocacy and training
  4. Protect wild bear populations through community-led efforts and increased understanding of wild bear populations
  5. Build the capacity of local partners and staff including government authorities, veterinarians, researchers, school-teachers, and animal care staff

baby-bear-ball Alex Cearns

Pictured is one of the moments that brought tears to our eyes. A ten year old female moon bear who was rescued from a bear bile farm, plays with a treat ball for the first time. She lives in a sanctuary in the Nam Cat Tien National Park, Vietnam, which was recently taken over by Free the Bears Fund.

This gorgeous bear took her treat ball into the pool and splashed around with it for over half an hour. To see her absolute joy and excitement was food for the soul. We were mesmerized by her enthusiasm, as we remembered where she came from and how far removed from those beginnings she was now. She once lived in a tiny metal cage the size of her body, unable to stand or even move. Now she has a pool and an enrichment toy, two meals a day, a big safe enclosure to roam in, and a team of people who will care for her for the rest of her life.

FTB have greatly improved the sanctuary since moving in, but the even better news is that building will soon commence on a new centre for bears just up the road from the existing one. The facility will be designed with every bear requirement in mind and will blend with the jungle environment.

The treat balls are made from tough plastic by Aussie Dog Products who generously subsidized them for FTB. Huge shout out to this awesome Aussie company helping the bears of South East Asia. Five of the fabulous people on our tour then carried 24 balls over from Australia to Vietnam in their luggage. There are now enough balls to be rotated through for the 35 bears in the centre.

When the bears first saw the balls they didn’t know what to do with them. Then they realised there was fruit and peanut butter crammed inside and they quickly got the hang of rolling the ball and tipping it upside down to get to the tasty morsels. The balls keep the bears minds and bodies active, encouraging them to use their tongues and claws to reach their food rewards. Each ball can last for several years.

For just $60 you can donate a treat ball to a rescued bear. These simple but effective tools greatly reduce the bears boredom and provides them with recurring joy. It really is the gift that keeps on giving and I can personally vouch for how much the bears love (and need) them.



shake-bear Alex Cearns

What do you do when you’re done playing with your brand new Aussie Dog Products treat balls, and climb out of the pool, only to find your towel is missing? Go all Taylor Swift and shake it off! This female moon bear was rescued from a Vietnamese bile farm in 2008. Her life at the Free the Bears Fund‘s sanctuary in the Nam Cat Tien National Park is vastly different to her life before her rescue. Not only does she have room to move, but now she even has a pool. And this is what freedom feels like.

Shake bear is a composite image of 7 shots, showing a female moon bear shaking water from her thick coat. She had spent the previous 15 minutes in her swimming pool, playing with two new treat enrichment balls.
bear-house alex cearns

Little bears can be very busy and the cub residents of Free the Bears Fund‘s enclosure number six in Cambodia are no exception.

‘Bear Apartment Six’ is a composite print made up of 16 photographs. The single images have been meticulously pieced together to form a visually enthralling scene of bustling bear activity, indicative of an apartment building.

Photographed over 90 consecutive minutes in June 2016, three sun bear cubs are the stars of the show as they climb in and out of their den entrance. Cheeky, joyful and adorable, sometimes they’re solo and sometimes they’re with their bear buddies. Each bear was rescued from the illegal wildlife trade when they were only a few months old, and will now be in the care of Free The Bears for the rest of their lives.

We have 2 year old Bearzilla, seized from people keeping him as a pet in Phnom Penh; Pooh, aged just under 2 years, surrendered by developers building a hydro dam in the Stung Treng Provence; and 15 month old Soriya Sundance, handed over by a Government Official who obtained her from ethnic minority hunters in the Mondulkiri Province.

This Limited Edition print ‘Bear Apartment Six’ sold all 100 copies in just 5 days, raising over $9070 for rescued bears (we took out postage charges and donated the printing costs which were generously sponsored by Fitzgerald Photo Imaging.)



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