“How we treat our animals reflects how we treat each other”.
So Ghandi got there before me, but I've always believed that how we care for fellow creatures is a good indication of how civilized we are (or are not) as a society.
On this measure, Cambodia had a head start through its buddhist heritage, with a sense of respect for other living creatures.
But these days, few Cambodians fear being reincarnated as a dung beetle, and when they hear me insisting on just veggies with my rice they often quiz me. My view - that it is cruel and unnecessary to kill animals to eat them - is met with uncomprehending stares: “But cow intestine taste so good!”. I learned to say “You know, like monk?”, and somehow it makes sense. (It’s a bit like when I go for an evening stroll and friends press me to hop on the back of their moto to get there quicker – explaining that I like to walk confirms me as a crazy barrang, but somehow “You know, for sport?” does the trick).
My sense is that Cambodians have become much more practical in their relationships with animals, with compassion (squeemishness if you like) now repressed from a young age. Basically, if a beast is useful to them in some way it will not be mistreated – not because cruelty is wrong, just because it makes sense in order to continue the benefit.
Thus water buffalo are well tended given their usefulness for plowing rice fields and pulling carts – but only as long as they work or reproduce. Pigs are well fed as they grow and breed, but are imprisoned and later killed (or transported in a tiny bamboo cage for someone else to do the dirty work). Dogs are tolerated as they help deter unwanted visitors (both real and imagined), but they live outside, scavenge food, menace visiting white men, and are routinely beaten.
The same goes for wild animals – they are valued only in as much as they provide a material benefit. Once the national animal, the kouprey (grey ox) was killed for meat. It is now extinct. Elephants were only useful if tamed, and again are now rare. The main hope for survival of dolphins in the Mekong is if locals can make money from them through tourism.
Cambodia still has a richly abundant animal life, and is home to 14 globally endangered species, including the Asiatic black (moon) bear, Malaysian (sun) bear, Asian elephant, Indochinese tiger and the Pileated gibbon.
Take the bears: these impressive creatures are threatened because until recently their value has been seen here only as a commodity to sell for public entertainment or private pets, for meat (paw stew anyone?), or - even harder to stomach - for farmers to cage them, insert metal catheters into their gall bladders, and sell their bile as dubious ‘medicine’.
Thankfully there is now a sanctuary for bears (along with elephants, snakes, parrots, minor birds and decidedly scary tigers) at the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre, 40km south of Phnom Penh. As a leaving present for Katja we both volunteered to be ‘bear keepers’ for a day. What a fantastic experience!
We made up the feed (green beans, biscuits and jam mashed up in a bamboo pole and stuffed with morning glory leaves), and got to hide them in the enclosures to give the bears a stimulating search for food. A real effort has been made to create an interesting environment in the enclosures, not only with forest and plants, but even pools and hammocks!
We then got right up close to the mix of sun and moon bears, learning their different ages and personalities. They’re beautiful and look so cuddly - though I wouldn’t get too near as they have serious claws! We were fortunate to see a baby, which was of course adorable - but we also loved the dark black adults with the distinctive ‘v’ marking, and an older, more orangey female. Thanks to the sanctuary, these wonderful creatures will be safe from cruel practices, and a release programme begins soon in Cambodia’s western Cardomom mountains, working carefully with the local communities.
I thought it was great, and there were plenty of Cambodian visitors enjoying it too. But I couldn’t help thinking that the reasons I cherish the bears - for their beauty, but also what I see as the intrinsic importance of preserving the country’s natural fauna - may not be shared by many others here. Rather, I think they are valued more because of pressure from foreign aid organizations, or as western visitors like us pay good money to see them. Put bluntly, they are only in the sanctuary as they are worth more there than for pets, meat or bile.
Returning to Ghandi’s point, I feel the moral relativism about animals is now also applied to people here. I often feel colleagues at my hospital care for other humans no better or worse than other animals. If they treat them well it is because it is better for themselves to do so. Is it going too far to suggest that that nurses tend patients because they are told to, and because they risk reprimand if they don’t, but not through compassion to relieve the suffering of fellow beings?
So I think the bear sanctuary has an importance beyond preserving wildlife, giving really important hope for this country: if future generations see animals now being treated with compassion, just maybe it will encourage them to care for each other in the same way too.