On September 18, 2019 a team of Australian veterinarians donated their time to fly to Borneo and perform a world-first hip surgery on Hitam, a five-year-old sun bear that had spent her life malnourished as a trafficked household pet.
Operation Sun Bear Borneo was kick-started by Kobe Steele from the Orangutan Foundation International Australia and headed by Australian veterinarian and filmmaker Dr Stephen Van Mil. The goal of the project was to crowdfund $20,000 in 4 weeks to get the supplies, travel, and post-operative care needed for Hitam, a 5-year-old sun bear who was the size of a 1-year-old cub with an underdeveloped pelvic bone – it’s only 1cm and should be 4-5cm, meaning defaecation is a tortuous exercise.
When the team at Covetrus™ heard about this incredible project we knew we wanted to do everything we could to support the Operation Sun Bear Borneo team across the line and send them over to Borneo with the extra medical supplies they needed. Covetrus Software Services, Provet and VetQuip, both Covetrus companies, came together to donate the remaining $5,000 needed to reach their $20,000 goal, liaised with Dr Van Mil to ensure all medical supplies were sent with the team ready for surgery and had Operation Sun Bear Borneo jackets and shirts made to help raise awareness in their media and documentary efforts for their expedition.
Operation Sun Bear Borneo’s crowdfunding efforts were so successful that they were also able to perform an additional operation on Ester, an orangutan in Borneo requiring ongoing medical attention for fractures, ulcers, and severe osteomyelitis.
Building the team
Dr Van Mil approached specialist surgeon at the Veterinary Specialist Centre Dr Gordon Corfield, senior surgical vet nurse Hayley O’Mara, and accomplished orthopaedic surgeon and VetLove clincs Founder Dr Geoff Wilson to form the OSBB team. Dr Larry Vogelnest, Senior Veterinarian at Taronga Zoo in Sydney, also came on board to donate his 30 year expertise, having also worked with sun bears in Cambodia and Sumatra. The team’s volunteered knowledge for pre-op meds, anaesthesia, pain relief and post-op recovery, including nutrition, was an essential part of the Operation Sun Bear Borneo expedition truly being a success. To raise awareness about the cruel conditions these animals are subjected to, Dr Van Mil also supervised filming for a documentary based on Hitam’s story and surgery.
A triple pelvic osteotomy was performed on Hitam using a custom-made plate built by Melbourne industrial designer Girius Antanaitis. After 6 hours, the team weren’t happy with how one of the screws had taken. The already huge surgery turned into a mammoth 8 hours but resulted in an extremely rewarding day!
As for Ester’s condition, we are pleased to report she is responding well to her treatment of her broken arm and shoulder, and ongoing rounds of antibiotics for what was found to be a bone infection and absits in her foot, eye socket and head.
Follow their progress!
Right now there is a documentary in the works hosted by actor, reporter and presenter, Lochie Daddo to shine a light on the bigger picture of Hitam’s story and the incredible impact this group of Australian veterinarians have had to her life – and Ester’s!
Visit their Facebook page @OperationSunBearBorneo for the full story, sneak peek footage of the operation, and follow up posts of these two beautiful animals!
Seen first in Partners in Practice by Provet, a Covetrus company