A dip for the bears


Monday February 25, 2013

ARMED with nothing more than a spunky heart and a genuine concern for animal welfare, two friends braved the icy waters at an annual dip event to raise funds for Bornean sun bears.
Katie McDonald and Anna Marie Zarb, who both hail from England, participated in the New Year’s Day Loony Dook challenge held at Scotland’s Firth of Forth, the estuary in which River Forth meets the North Sea.
The event drew participants, both young and old, who took a leap of faith by plunging into the icy depths of the firth as a novel way of celebrating the New Year.
A conversation between two pals over drinks during Christmas break in 1986 sparked off the idea after one of them suggested dipping in the firth to clear their hangovers! When more friends took to the idea, Loony Dook was thus born, and is now celebrated in a much more boisterous manner than in the past.
People come from around the world to join in or be a spectator, and over time, the participants have also made the dip a fundraiser for charities of their choice. Part of the fun lies in some of the bizzare costumes that participants don.
To reflect the charity they picked – the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre in Sabah, Malaysia – McDonald and Zarb made online purchases of outfits which they later modified to look like that of a sun bear with its unique yellow chest patch.
So what motivated McDonald and Zarb to raise funds for an NGO that is nearly halfway around the globe from their home country?

“I was in Malaysia for a few years and saw that it is such a beautiful country. There’s such an amazing biodiversity, but the ecosystem is fragile and many of the animals are threatened,” said McDonald, 28, in an e-mail interview.
“During my stint in Malaysia, I worked closely with a number of wildlife and conservation-related organisations. It was tough having to single out one particular project to raise funds for. I felt that the work carried out at Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre covered a lot of important areas which included animal welfare, wildlife rehabilitation, habitat preservation, public education and research. I also like the idea of bringing awareness of tropical animals and conservation to a different part of the world.”
For Zarb, 34, the plight of animals is a subject close to her heart, and she is happy to help any animal charity, regardless of its location.
Both women are currently pursuing a Masters of Science in Applied Animal Behaviour and Animal Welfare at the Edinburgh University, which was how they met.

“Loony Dook is a part of Hogmanay (a uniquely Scottish New Year celebration that dates back to olden times) and certainly seems like fun!” said Zarb.
On the day of the event, the weather was sunny. Despite that, they could still feel the chill while waiting for their turn to jump in.
“We had no idea what the water temperature would be like, only that it would be cold! The thought of a good cause helped us overcome the temperature anxiety!” said McDonald.

“Anna decided that the best strategy was to scream and run in, so that was what we did and after a few seconds, we kind of lost feeling anyway! All around, there were stewards from the Royal National Lifeboat Institution stopping people from going too deep as a safety measure,” said McDonald.
The duo stayed in the water for a couple of minutes, accompanied by a quick swim.

“At the end of the day, we know that it’s BSBCC and the sun bears that are benefiting, so it was worth braving the cold!” added McDonald.
In mid-December, she had put up a posting on a social networking site to share what she was doing, to raise a targeted sum of £200.
“We wanted to raise greater awareness about sun bears in the hope that more people would think about them and find out more about this little known but fascinating animal,” said McDonald.

“I have visited the centre several times as I used to work for a company which brought groups of school kids to Sabah.
“One of the projects we undertook was making enrichment toys for the bears; we learnt about their natural behaviour and the ecology of the species. All the centre’s personnel were so supportive of the students. They were happy to share their knowledge and passion for sun bears.

“The centre’s founder, Wong Siew Te, is a leading expert, yet he always has time to spend with visitors and share everything he knows about sun bears, the smallest among eight bear species. It’s a fantastic centre and a great place to learn about sun bears and conservation,” said McDonald, who recently helped to raise funds for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, as well as Save the Children, a global organisation working to help children get access to food, education, healthcare and human rights.
To learn more about the sun bears, visit the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre homepage at www.bsbcc.org.my/.

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