By Robin Van Auken on Volunteer Forever

Bears are iconic and have been throughout history, playing a major role in art and mythology. They were traditionally been hunted by humans, often as a challenge to dominate a large, fierce species, or for their rich reserves of meat and fur.

Most American children are familiar with the beloved “Teddy Bear,” invented to honor U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt. The story goes, Roosevelt was on a hunting trip but did not find a bear. One of his assistants cornered and tied a Black Bear to a willow tree so the president could “save face,” but Roosevelt refused, saying it was not sporting. Clifford Berryman, a cartoonist, heard the story and drew a satire of the president, “Drawing the line,” which ran in the Washington Post newspaper on Nov. 16, 1902. A toymaker capitalized on the cartoon, and created a stuffed bear that he called “Teddy’s Bear.

Roosevelt liked the bear and gave his permission to toymaker to keep using his name, and today, the Teddy Bear is a ubiquitous gift in the United States and beyond. There are even Build-a-Bear Workshops, stores that allow people to create and personalize their stuffed bears. The chain has donated $1 million to charities, including the World Wide Fund for Nature.

Other beloved bear icons include Paddington Bear and Winnie the Pooh, both fictional characters of U.K. children’s literature. Winnie the Pooh is a friendly, philosopher created by A. A. Milne in 1926. British author Michael Bond introduced the polite Paddington Bear in 1958.

Other notable bears include: Smokey Bear, who tells children in the United States to prevent forest fires; Fozzie Bear, a comedian who accompanies his pal, Kermit the Frog, on adventures; Yogi Bear, who is smarter-than-the-average-bear and steals picnic baskets at Jellystone National Park; and Baloo, a fun-loving bear from Rudyard Kipling’s “The Jungle Book.”

Bears are beloved in a book and on screen, but the reality is a different story. In modern times, bears are threatened by encroachment on their habitats, and illegal trade in bear parts, including the Asian bile bear market. Of the eight species that remain, six are vulnerable. Even the two that aren’t threatened – the brown bear and the American Black Bear – are still at risk. Laws have been enacted to protect bears, but education and conservation are needed to preserve the remaining populations.

If you’re interested in helping bears, take a look at a volunteer project at the Giant Panda Center in China offered by GoEco. Frontier will place you at the China Panda Breeding Centre where you work to increase the Giant Panda population.

Or join Volunteering Solutions abroad to help the smallest bears in the world – the Sun Bears of Malaysia! If you want to walk on the wild side, check out Fronteering’s project at the Bear, Deer & Wolf Haven in Ontario, Canada.

Globalteer allows you to help with rescued bears at the Cambodia Bear Sanctuary, stemming the tide of the bile bear trade, or, if you’re a teen, you can travel to Peru and work with the rare Spectacled Bear as part of Project Abroad’s Rainforest Conservation work.

Before you go, brush up on bears. It’s important to know more about this endangered animal, especially since its fate has been so closely entwined with ours.

About the Ursidae

These great, shaggy beasts are found throughout North and South America, Europe, and Asia, but of all the bears that once walked the planet, only eight species are left. They are:

  • Brown Bear (includes the Grizzly and Kodiak)
  • Polar Bear
  • Asian Black Bear
  • American Black Bear
  • Sun Bear
  • Sloth Bear
  • Spectacled Bear
  • Giant Panda Bear

Modern bears share common characteristics: they have large bodies, stocky legs, long snouts, small ears, long fur, short tails, and paws with five non-retractile claws. But that’s their common traits – and individual species are quite unique. Take, for example, the Giant Panda Bear, a vegetarian that feeds primarily on bamboo. The indolent Panda, typically a solitary animal, has come to symbolize vulnerable species. Then, there’s the Polar Bear, primarily a marine mammal that spends much of its time on Arctic sea ice. This carnivorous mammal that will eat almost any other animal it crosses in the Arctic Circle, traveling up to 20 miles each day in search of prey. Most bears, however, are omnivores and eat both meat and plants.

Bears may seem clumsy, but they’re great at climbing, running, and even swimming. Many people fear bears because of their size, but research shows that most bears only become aggressive when they are threatened, or their babies are in danger. They’re smart, shy and great a hiding. They need to be elusive to survive. They often live 25 years, which is why wildlife sanctuaries are so important for their long-term care when they’re rescued.

One of the biggest threats to bears is the Asian bile bear market, which traps and keeps bears in captivity to harvest their bile. Bile is a digestive fluid produced by the liver and stored in the gallbladder and is used by some traditional Chinese medicine practitioners.

If you’re interested in animal conservation, take a look some of the featured programs below that place you with bear sanctuaries throughout the world, helping to protect bears and their natural habitat.


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