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Greg Riddell went to Cambodia for seven weeks to help free bears from revolting conditions. While he was there, he was electrocuted five times and mugged once. He lost $300 and his camera. What did he have to say upon his return to Canada?
“I’d love to go back. It was a great experience.”
An unlikely story, but he swears it’s true. He recounts his journey to the most foreign of countries while he sits in the familiar courtyard outside George Martin Hall, on St Thomas University’s campus. Riddell, a fourth-year Criminology major, was looking for a summer experience to help him get a job with the Ontario Provincial Police. It’s hard to get a job with the OPP unless the applicant has volunteer experience on top of their university diploma.
“I’ve always loved bears since I was a kid. I live in Muskoka so there’s bears all around there. My parents went to Cambodia in January for three weeks with the Rotary program handing out bicycles to kids. On their trip they visited this place so they got me in contact,” he says.
And so began Riddell’s seven-week experience with Free the Bears.
The Australian organization’s founder was watching TV one day 20 years ago and saw a program on bear bile farms in Southeast Asia. Horrified, Mary Hutton decided she needed to do something. She founded Free the Bears in 1995. Today, the organization allows volunteers like Riddell to help make a difference.
“I paid them and they basically just housed me. For six weeks it was $2300 and $2300 for the flight,” he says.
For Riddell, the money was well spent. The organization rescues bears from poachers, traps, and bile farms. On the farms, bears are kept in cages. Syringes are injected into their gall bladders to extract bile for traditional Chinese medicine.
“The bears are kept in cages where there’s only room to get up on their fours and lie down. They have no room to turn around, so sometimes you’ll get a bear that’s stunted,” says Riddell.
For the first few days of his stay in Cambodia, Riddell was less concerned with bears than he was with adjusting to the environment. The 13-hour time difference was hard on him, as was the thirty degree temperature and humidity.
Once he ventured out of his hotel, he went to market. He lost his way in the unfamiliar surroundings and decided to find an ATM to get some money.
“Someone came up behind me, told me to give them my money and the camera so I just passed it behind me. Then I got on the back of a moped and it took me all over Phnom Penh. I had no idea where my hotel was. It just dropped me on the side of the road.”
Eventually, he made his way back and met up with the Free the Bears group the next day.
As he recounts his arrival at the bear facility, Riddell’s eyes light up. The facts come fast and furious, tumbling from his lips.
“The first time I saw them, it was interesting how different they are from our bears. The sun bears have a yellow marking on their chest and the moon bears have a white crest on their chest. You think they’re so adorable and tiny, but when they fight and growl, it’s terrifying. It reminds you that they’re wild animals. Just seeing them everyday, it’s always amazing,” he beams.
Riddell’s accommodations were different from those of the native Cambodians he encountered. The open-air house had 5 bedrooms, a living room, and an abundance of chickens running around.
While foreigners are encouraged to help out, they never work directly with the bears.
“The program hires local villagers and trains them to be proper keepers of the bears. It’s all about getting the locals involved,” says Riddell. “We cleaned out the pens, helped with feeding and enrichment.”
And that’s how he got electrocuted. It happened 5 times, all of them accidental. But that’s all the information he’s willing to give about his brushes with electricity. He’s all about the bears, and the people.
The Cambodian workers at the facility had very few tools. Poverty was evident through everyday tasks.
“They had no chainsaw, for the longest time they were hand-sawing things. They don’t use hammers, they use axes to nail things together. It’s very poor there. Going along you see the difference between people in the city, how some people are are rich but there are so many where it’s just like living in the ghetto,” recounts Riddell.
It made him want to help. After learning the history of Cambodia, Riddell resolved to take away not only the stories of the bears, but the plight of the people, too.
“I went there to help the bears but after meeting all the people and learning their horrific past, you really want to help them, get to know them.”
The experience gave Riddell a new lense through which to view the world. Even his mugging early on in the trip took on a new meaning.
“When I thought about it, I thought three hundred dollars is going to go a long way, it will feed the guy’s family, it’ll do so much for this guy. It’s three months wages, if not more, for them. I thought, I’ll put this one behind me, I still have six more weeks in this amazing country, where for the most part, everyone is nice and friendly.”
And what about the bears? Riddell says Free the Bears is on their way and their focus now is on spreading awareness.
“We want to have everyone knowing there will be no more poaching, no more bile farms, and the bears will be left alone.”