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Contact: Heidi Keen
Washington State University

Grizzly bears at play

WSU researchers enrich bears' lives

Washington State University doctoral student Heidi Keen rewards John the grizzly bear with an apple slice.
Credit: Linda Weiford, Washington State University

PULLMAN, Wash. - A young woman sporting a blond ponytail and dark sunglasses raises a flash card before a 500-pound male grizzly bear. The creature, with its blocky-shaped head and large back hump, responds by sitting up on his fire hydrant-sized hind legs.

But instead of baring his teeth and swiping at her with his massive paw, he reaches out and swats the flash card.

"Most grizzlies are right-handed, just like humans," the woman comments, while removing the card from the chain-linked fence that separates her from North America's biggest and most formidable predator.

Next she inserts an apple slice through an opening in the fence. The grizzly devours it in a single swallow.

It's as if he came to play.

Second nature

At Washington State University's Bear Research Center, doctoral student Heidi Keen closely interacts with eight furry research subjects too dangerous to handle in the wild. Using tools such as flash cards, orange construction cones and cow hides, she is analyzing not only how the bears interact with her but how much they enjoy the human-made stimulation.

Her unusual work offers a magnified look at "animal enrichment," developed by zoo-keepers during the 1970s to help captive animals lead happy, healthy lives. Instead of just observing and recording the behavior, Keen is probing the "why" of the behavior.

John the grizzly bear reaches his paw to a flash card held by Washington State University doctoral student Heidi Keen.
Linda Weiford, Washington State University

"I like to compare it to going to a job and getting a paycheck. At first the work is novel and fun. But after a while, do you go only because of the paycheck or also because you enjoy the work?" said Keen, now in her third year of enriching the world of grizzlies at WSU. Before grizzlies, she worked as an animal trainer and presenter of parrots, white-nosed coatis and Asian-crested porcupines at the Phoenix Zoo.

"Ideally, enrichment ensures that zoo animals have plenty of positive stimulation, mentally and physically," said Keen. The stimulation can be sensory-based, dietary or social, and it needs to engage the animal for an extended period of time, she said.

Critics have long assumed that animals are empty of emotions and dismissed examples of animal intelligence as circus tricks. But each time a skeptic draws a line, animals cross it. Dolphins recognize themselves in mirrors. Parrots can count. Rats laugh.

Grizzly bears, WSU researchers have found, are predominantly right-handed and can close gates. They even perk up when they spot familiar scientists' cars pulling into the parking lot.

Bruins and the scientist

Six mornings a week in spring and summer, rulers of the wild kingdom are subjected to Keen's research tools, ranging from gray flash cards, playthings, apple slices and honey water. Her field research is overseen by a "bear advisor." And talk about a captive audience wide-eyed members of the public press against a chain-link fence to watch.

What seems the stuff of storybooks is actually cutting-edge research, said WSU veterinary cardiologist Lynne Nelson, AKA bear advisor.

Washington State University doctoral student Heidi Keen with bear cubs playing on a tire swing behind her.
Credit: Linda Weiford, Washington State University

"It's eye-opening from the standpoint that Heidi has developed tests to determine the bears' basic emotions in relation to their environment," explained Nelson, assistant director of the bear research center. The center was started in 1986 to protect grizzlies in the wild, and now is working to improve their lives in zoos as well.

"Since we can't peer into bears' minds, and since they can't tell us what they're feeling, we have to design tests that measure responses, and that's what Heidi has done," she said.

Smart, colorful bears

An empty beer keg that energizes a grizzly bear might be ho-hum to a penguin, so enrichment programs must be tailored to each species, said Keen. Think: Bamboo toys for pandas, hay-filled burlap sacks for tigers, corkscrew water slides for penguins.

So, amid random grunts and roars, Keen studies the species, Ursus arctos horribilis six females and two males -- with names ranging from John to Frank, Oakley and Luna.

Each grizzly brims with personality and smarts, said Keen. For example, Luna zips through her enrichment tasks, "expecting us to keep up with her rather than letting us set the pace," she said. Oakley, the smallest, is calm and demure during testing but stands her ground among the double-her-size males. Frank protects his cowhide research tool, sitting on it and even covering it with grass to keep his bear-mates from snatching it, said Keen.

And the reason Keen wears sunglasses? Months into her research, she realized that each time she held up a flash card to John, he studied her face instead of the card, presumably to read her facial cues on how he should respond, she said.

"They amaze and amuse me almost every day."

Eventually, Keen hopes her research will provide humans with a better understanding of how to enrich the lives of not only WSU's grizzly bears, but captive animals everywhere, she said.

"We want them to feel like they live more as they would in the wild. We owe it to them."

And perhaps, by blending empathy for animals with science, we are more human in the deepest sense of the word.