When I look back at the time we spent travelling throughout Central Asia in 1997, it’s hardly any wonder that I was so captivated by the magic of the county that I returned to set up Sujuu 16 years later.
Some of my favourite times in Kyrgyzstan were those spent getting to know Misha, a white clawed bear.
After a day of travelling we arrived at the glacial lake in Sarachelyk to a feast of shashlyk and flat bread, but before long it was time for my two brothers (aged 4 and 11) and I (aged 8) to be put to bed. The sun was long set by this time so we did the customary toilet trip by torch light - as we were special guests we had a fresh hole in the ground ready dug for us. It was luxury!
We formed an orderly queue but while waiting heard a rustle in the bushes, accompanied by an unusual noise somewhere between a growl and a groan. My Dad joked, in his best horror-story-voice, that it was a bear, but after a fleeting fear he may be right we were assured we were safe and put to bed.
Upon waking the next morning our worst fears were confirmed, it was indeed a bear, but this soon turned to excitement when we learnt Misha was tame. Unfortunately, her story hadn’t been a happy one as poachers had killed her mother while she was a cub, so she was rescued and hand-reared. When she was released into the wild she had no hunting and foraging skills and associated humans with food so repeatedly returned to the village where she didn’t receive a warm welcome.
It was at this point our hosts built a cage and kept the huge creature as best they could, but living below the bread line themselves (on less than a dollar a day) it had been a big commitment.
Misha was fully-grown but still young when we met her, and I thought she was the gentlest of giants. We fed her by hand and her favourite food was ‘honey dippers’ – a doughnut like ball dipped in freshly collected honey. I was animal obsessed from a young age so this was my idea of heaven! I spent hours sitting the other side of her chicken wire fence talking to her and stroking her much like a dog, I was smitten.
Disaster stuck one morning when I went to see Misha she didn’t come a greet me, instead she seemed tethered to the stake in the middle of the cage to which she was attached by a long chain. Her collar had caught and she was in a total tangle, so I ran to get help from the two men I knew I could trust to save my beloved bear, Yrysbek and my Dad.
Together we devised a plan where Dad would feed Misha while Yrysbek set about untangling her. They went into the cage and the idea was working perfectly, until the honey dippers ran out. Dad reached his hand into his pocket and a look of grim realization passed across his face, Yrysbek caught his eye and quickly realized the error of their plan, unfortunately for them, so did Misha.
It’s no wonder these are called “White Claw Bears” Misha reared up onto her hind legs, towering high above the two men and drew her claws. What proceeded must have only taken seconds, but seemed to take an age in slow motion. Yrysbek and my Dad were clambering over each other to get out the cage and in just the nick of time the two men fell on top of each other, just out the reach of the epic claws.
In hindsight this really could’ve ended in disaster, but as the two men lay on the ground to recover, so did my brothers and I, but from fits of giggles. From my 8-year-old point of view it was like a comedy sketch, and reminiscent of the Tom and Jerry video we had watched on repeat at out home in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. Needless to say the adults didn’t see the funny side.
This story does have a happy ending, both for Misha and for me. We fostered Misha so she could live in a big, natural enclosure and remain well fed, and I submitted my story to ‘Animal Mad’ magazine, it was published and I won a prize, I was pretty chuffed!