I volunteer one day a week at Birmingham Nature Centre, a small zoo. The zoo’s coatis were moved to Durrell Conservation Trust in 2010 and I had the pleasure of visiting Jersey in September 2011 to see how well they settled in, as well as having a look around the rest of the park.
Whilst there I noticed that Barbara, one of the Andean or spectacled bears, had alopecia – itchy skin – and that she ‘paced’ in her enclosure. I asked if I could visit again, bringing my oils with me to try to help with her condition. No medical reasons had so far been found for Barbara’s skin complaint and behavioural issues. I felt that Barbara’s problems were anxiety related. I was also informed that she paced, and had a habit of flicking her head to one side, when the Durrell Trust had received her from another zoo back in 1987.
I returned to Jersey at the end of November 2011 to work with Barbara and her partner Wolfgang. Andean bears (Tremarctos ornatus) are the only bears from South America. They are omnivores, feeding mainly on fruit and vegetation and occasionally on meat. Both Barbara and Wolfgang were born in 1985 in separate zoos and were brought together at Durrell in 1987 as a breeding pair. They have produced three sets of twins over their years together; all their offspring were weaned at around two years of age. There is no history of past trauma or abuse for either bears as far as their keepers at Durrell were aware of.
I decided to offer:
Rose (otto and absolute) for past trauma and anxiety. Both bears showed great interest, inhaling deeply and walking away to return again to inhale more from the stick I offered to them with the rose oil. They showed a preference for the absolute over the otto.
Neroli for sadness and separation. Again, both bears showed interest in the neroli, sniffing the stick and coming back for more.
Sandalwood for fear and dry flaky skin. Barbara was very interested in this oil and she inhaled deeply and then lifted her nose high in the air taking in more of the molecules by breathing deeply. She also licked the air several times and remained by the stick, as well as rubbing her face and eye on it as well (note: she has one eye with the third eyelid showing for some unknown reason).
We put a plate containing a few drops of sandalwood in sunflower oil in Barbara’s den. This is separate to the shared area; Barbara is able to squeeze through the door but Wolfgang is too large to follow. Barbara lapped up all of the oil, lifting up the plate as if looking for more.
Yarrow for wounds of the heart and body, and an anti-inflammatory. Both bears were interested in this oil and kept returning to inhale more. However, they showed no further interest when it was offered again the next day.
Frankincense for fear and anxiety. Both only exhibited slight interest and then walked away showing no further interest.
Valerian for relaxing. Both showed some interest and then walked away.
Hemp for nervousness and dry skin. Both only showed a slight interest and then walked away.
Calendula for comforting and skin disorders. Both bears showed some interest in sniffing the bottle through the bars. However, only Wolfgang licked some from the bars on their enclosure. We offered him some in a bowl and he lapped up around 50mls.
Chickweed for skin disorders. Both bears showed a keen interest so some was offered on the bars again, but only Wolfgang ingested it. However, some was offered separately to Barbara and she lapped up a small amount.
Chamomile (Roman & German) for allergies and skin disorders of a nervous origin. Barbara showed some interest but when I put a few drops on an egg box to offer to her, she walked away and showed no further interest.
Barley Grass. Both bears showed great interest in this, licking the stick coated with the powder.
Other oils/compounds offered: valerian, flax, spikenard, lavender, angelica root, spirulina, seaweed extract and vetiver, which I offered to Wolfgang to help subdue his over excitable sexual behaviour (which his keeper told me was problem occasionally). He showed a lot of interest in this oil inhaling deeply. They both only showed very brief interest in the other oils offered.
I was amazed at the responses from the bears. Both were so keen on the remedies that they were almost glued to the bars, concentrating intently on what was coming next. Wolfgang even climbed on top of the barred doorway to look down over me at one point, trying to get closer to the bag containing the oils. He also pawed the bars a lot with his very large claws and after the session had ended he gathered up the sticks and egg boxes coated with the oils and sat hugging them for quite some time with his nose in his paws. Barbara’s responses were very positive as well but she was more relaxed in her reactions, possibly because Wolfgang was in the way. It may be best offering her the oils in her separate den area.
Both bears were also very vocal whilst being offered the oils and made what I can only describe as a yickering/purring sound, which apparently they do when they are happy and when calling each other. Mothers communicate with their cubs using this vocalization in the wild.
I left the following oils/compounds with the keepers:
Rose, to be offered either straight from the bottle or sprinkled in the enclosure in the area where Barbara paces. I also suggested putting some on a cloth for them both.
Neroli (floral water), to be sprayed in a few areas within their enclosure again on the ‘pacing path’.
Sandalwood, to be offered from the bottle as well as several drops in sunflower oil to be given to Barbara daily.
Calendula and chickweed, for a reasonable amount, roughly 50mls, to be offered in separate bowls to both bears.
Barley grass. I suggested offering it both dry and by mixing some with sunflower oil or water in a bowl.
Since the keepers are very busy I suggested that they provide the oils and compounds at least daily, ideally after feeding.
I am happy to report that both bears loved the rose sprinkled on cloths and proceeded to walk around for some time with their cloths – like having a comfort blanket!
Also Jenna a senior mammal keeper told me she had sprayed some neroli around the path where Barbara paces indoors. She sniffed intently for some time and then went to sleep in her bed instead of continuing to pace.
The keepers continue to offer daily the rose, neroli, sandalwood in sunflower oil and barley grass, chickweed and calendula and will continue to do so until both bears show no further interest.
It is too soon to see if the oils will help cure Barbara’s alopecia and itchy dry skin, but hopefully they will. I’ll update as soon as I know how she is progressing. I am very lucky to have had the opportunity to work with such amazing animals and have such positive responses and results.