Operation Johnny

Johnny is a special little soul, who under the circumstances should show fear of human kind. But indicative of his gentle personality, though living in a tiny cage he could barely stand in, Johnny loved for nothing more than a scratch on the back and a hose down in the hot Sumatran heat. Finally, he now has the chance to chase all the clouds in the sky and count all the bees in the hive. I was lucky this year, to be part of a team of generous people who enabled him to finally be cage free.


Meeting Johnny for the first time.

When we first journeyed to Sumatra to rescue an orphaned elephant named Bona, we weren’t expecting to also find Johnny. A Sumatran sun bear living in a small cage he could barely stand in. He had no water, no enrichment to pass the time with and only wire grills on the bottom of his cage. Johnny endured that life for three long years. A life that was beyond cruel. My first blog post I had written about Johnny was on 04 May 2012, it read:

After seeing Dara, we met Jonny, a confiscated sun bear who had been brought to the Conservation Centre. Jonny touched all of our hearts instantly. He is absolutely huge and has an incredibly warm nature. If you could let him out of the cage he would just want to play. Jonny’s enclosure is very upsetting to see and had all of us in tears. It’s around 1m x 2m and is just tall enough for Jonny to sit up. We gave Jonny a bath with the hose and he loved it. He rolled over on to his back and put his arms up like he was having a shower. Jonny’s story is very sad, he was used as a cub to be taken to the market on a leash for entertainment in the local village. He grew to be too big and then was discovered by the rangers and confiscated. When they tried to release him into the wild he wandered back to the village that he knew and now lives at the conservation centre. My heart broke for Jonny, and Team Bona have promised both Jonny and the Conservation Centre that we will help any way we can. He is so thankful of any love or affection he is shown, which is beautiful considering the treatment he has previously been shown by humans.

As volunteers in a country like Sumatra, it is a steep learning curve to understand that things don’t always happen the way they would back home. We soon realised that campaigning against and putting pressure on the government agency that had Johnny was not doing him any favours. Patience was our biggest virtue in this game. Patience and positivity. To the goverment office, Johnny was rescued. To us, Johnny was in living hell. Our standards of animal welfare are two very different things. We realised that we needed to help, not hinder.

524987_10150861642288175_2035717034_nLike many other sun bear cubs, Johnny was taken from his mother and kept as a pet in a local village. He was later confiscated by the authorities and one relocation to the wild was attempted but sadly he returned to the only home he knew in the local village. Johnny was confiscated again and remained in the carpark at the government office in the city of Bengkulu for three years in his small cage. We are still unsure why Johnny was kept for so long in these conditions. Every time we got close to an agreed memorandum of understanding, there would be another reason why it was refused. Johnny had to stay in the province, Johnny was going to a zoo, Johnny could not be given to someone who was an NGO.

This is a sad but common story, many animals are captured for the illegal pet trade and kept until they outgrow their space. While they are cute and manageable as cubs, before too long these cubs grow to be 65kg in weight and often end up locked away. They endure a life much-like Johnny where they are isolated and neglected. From my original blog about Johnny’s environment, his neglect is clearly depicted in the following exert:

To see an animal as big and beautiful as Johnny in a cage he can barely stand in is something that there is no words for. He gets no enrichment, he paces up and down from boredom. Sometimes he gets so frustrated, he throws himself head first up against one end of the cage. The only water he gets is when people remember to stick the hose in the cage a few times a day. The bottom of his cage is uneven wire bars, so his feet do not get a solid flat surface to sit or walk around on. He is also stressed. Things happen around Johnny’s cage all day long that frighten him. The daily goings on around him as people arrive for work, smoke cigarettes, make loud phone calls, drive in big patrol trucks, and bring in new injured wildlife to operate on right beside his cage, and of course people who come to gawk at him sticking things in his cage for fun. When a large female tiger was rescued from the forest, and angry as could be, Johnny had to hear her roaring right beside his cage. An animal he would naturally be fearful of.  Johnny has nowhere to hide. Not anywhere to put his head when all this unfamiliarity is too much. Johnny is constantly on display. Johnny has been there now for 2 years.


Feeling helpless looking in at Johnny.

The three of us set it as our mission the day we set eyes on Johnny to free him from his tiny cage. We never expected it would take long, we thought it was a simple solution to donate our funds to relocate Johnny to a better place. There were two main issues, one being that there was no space available in and around the area Johnny was and secondly, the government office were not at all keen to hand over the bear. We fought long and hard for almost two years to gain permission for Johnny’s relocation. But his spirit kept many of us going, he is just one of those animals that you can never forget. The simple things like giving him a shower with a hose, or scratching his back made him infinitely happy. The simple things for an animal who has nothing. We only imagined what a new home would do for this bear. The fact that this was in reach for us made us try everything we could think of for him.


Giving Johnny a scratch on his back.

Over time, we connected with many followers who found a place in their heart for Johnny. A lot of people had followed along for the entire campaign determined to help us free Johnny. There was no stone that remained unturned in trying to find him a place to go and a way to do it. We contacted nearly every animal welfare organisation out there to no avail. The situation was too political, too involved and it was a difficult case to take on.  Johnny couldn’t go to Borneo to the other sun bear facilities due to red tape that didn’t allow him out of the country. While we went about our every day lives, Johnny sat motionless in that cage. That was more determination than ever before to get him out.

One night while watching television in Norway, I came across a documentary about a French man named Chanee. He established a radio station in Borneo rescuing all kinds of animals involved in the illegal pet trade. Surprisingly the documentary touched on one of his sanctuaries called Kalaweit in Indonesia where he has three rescued sun bears. I couldn’t get to the computer fast enough to get in touch with him.

To our surprise Chanee replied advising that he would take our sun bear. This was a milestone day on the campaign for Johnny. If we could help him fund an enclosure extension, he would organise the relocation logistics of Johnny to his new home in Penang.


Enjoying some enrichment items sent by Animals Asia.

What followed was a 2-month undercover operation with the help of COP (Centre for Orangutan Protection) to utilise their connections to seek the appropriate permission for Johnny to be handed over to Chanee at Kalaweit. They tackled it from high up in the government from Jakarta finally seeking approval for Johnny to be handed over to Chanee. I got the phone call when I was on holiday in France saying that the permission had been granted. It was one of the most exciting phone calls I have ever received. And it was on Bona the elephants 3rd birthday. Johnny was to be cage free in December.

In the meantime, we contacted all of Johnny’s followers behind the scenes to get together the funding for Johnny’s new enclosure. One of the donors Carol from New Zealand, had been fundraising for going on two years and had most of the funds needed for the enclosure. She had even sold her boat as a donation. We were not to mention the operation publicly in fear of it jeopardising our progress which made it difficult to get together $10,000 in a short amount of time. Thankfully a number of generous private funders enabled us to build the enclosure at Kalaweit. We were beside ourselves waiting for this to unfold and for Johnny to finally get there. There were a lot of hiccups along the way, which had us on tender hooks thinking that at any stage, the government may change their mind.


Looking out on to a new world.

On 19 December 2013, Johnny made the long journey from Bengkulu to Penang with veterinarians from COP and Kalaweit. I received updates all the way along, but the one we were all waiting to hear was that Johnny had made it safe and sound to his new home. I was sent a picture, in that all familiar green cage of Johnny looking out on to a whole new world. There were tears of happiness shed all around the world that day for Johnny. 2 years of fighting for Johnny with attempts from several different angles had come to an end and so too had three years of living hell for a little sun bear.


Johnny’s plaque at Kalaweit.

He will spend the next few weeks being slowly introduced into his new home, and it is still unsure whether he will ever make friends with the other bears at the facility. However, we are satisfied knowing that Johnny has a lovely new home where he can feel the wind in his fur, the earth beneath his feet and look up from his tree platform and see the clouds in the sky.

We are not professionals in this field, we are not veterinarians, we just cared greatly about Johnny. We are just people like everyone else who have the chance to connect people to these stories and use the resources within our own lucky country to deliver the things they need. Awareness is the key, and the power of technology enables us to connect the stories of these unfortunate animals to the masses. Thank you to everyone who enabled Johnny a better life. Never take “no” as an answer, anything is possible with passion and enthusiasm.


Johnny is now in his new ‘sanctuary’ at Kalaweit and the news is wonderful. Chanee first thought Johnny would have to live solitary from the other bears because he may not be used to their company. BUT, upon a brief fence to fence introduction it appeared that one of the female bears took a particular liking to Johnny. As a result, Johnny now lives happily in the same enclosure with 3 other female bears. He is dominant, confident and very popular with his three girlfriends. The happiest ending we could ever ask for. You wouldn’t think he was the same bear.

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