Researchers Work To Make Captive Grizzly Bears Happier

Jul 25, 2012

You may have visited zoos where the animals look less than thrilled sitting in their cages. But scientists at Washington State University’s Bear Research Center are working to help captive animals enjoy their environment. Reporter Courtney Flatt followed researchers who are trying to learn more about captive bears’ moods.

Two grizzly bears pace back and forth in a narrow pen at the Bear Research Center. As the bears reach the end of the pen, they twirl their bodies in a sort of pirouette motion.

It’s that type of repetitive movement that researcher Heidi Keen is working to prevent.

Keen: “A lot of bears exhibit those behaviors in zoos. There’s a lot of debate as to why those behaviors originate, but it can be related to lack of stimulation in the environment.”

Zoo managers say keeping animals psychologically happy is as important as providing them with good veterinary care.

Nearly every morning and every afternoon, Keen gives the center’s eight grizzlies different toys to play with. (She calls them enrichment items.) Keen uses a system of gray flashcards, apple slices and gestures she taught the bears. This all helps her figure out which toys the animals like to play with. Keen is testing the difference between cowhides and orange traffic cones.

Keen: “You can’t just ask the animal, ‘Okay, so how are you feeling, and how did you respond?’”

Ultimately, Keen’s research could help zoos have almost instant feedback on the “toys” in animals’ pens. Providing better environments for captive animals helps with their mental health.

A 425-pound grizzly saunters up to the edge of a wire fence. She plops down right in front of the researchers.

“So this is Peeka.”

The researchers start to measure the bear’s mood. They feed Peeka apple slices each time she makes the correct gesture.

“You can see she’s very enthusiastic.”

Peeka scarfs down the treats as fast as research assistant Danielle Rivet can feed them. The grizzly eats around thirteen apples in five minutes. Rivet’s been helping out at the Bear Research Center since May.

Rivet: “It’s kind of scary, I guess, the first couple times you do it. You have to really make sure your fingers stay behind the fence. They do try and grab the apples with their lips, but you still have to be careful.”

The WSU Bear Research Center opened in 1986 to protect wild grizzlies. The animals at the center are not able to return to the wild. That’s one reason scientists decided to start studying the captive animals to provide research to zoos.

Keen’s study would allow zoos to provide a better environment for captive animals.

Keen: “We can have an almost daily reading of how animals are experiencing their environment or what enrichment items are working.”

David Shepherdson works with the Oregon Zoo in Portland. The zoo has studied animals’ psychological well being for the past 40 years. He says Keen is basically developing a new tool to communicate with a wide variety of mammals, not just grizzly bears.

Shepherdson: “For a lot of animals, the kinds of training that she’s doing with the bears would be feasible. If it’s feasible with all bears, obviously a primate would easily be able to learn these tasks, and so would an elephant. Certainly it could be a useful tool.”

Back at WSU, Keen says she sees her research benefiting other captive animals. After finishing up Peeka’s experiment, Keen takes her to a large, open pen to play. It’s a more appealing setting for the bear that played with traffic cones during the experiment. Keen glances at the day’s results.

Reporter: “So, she was happy today?”
Keen: “Nope, not as happy as usual. But she got the traffic cones today instead of cowhide. That’s kind of what we expect to see, is that she’s a little disappointed in the sense that she’s not getting the best option.”

But, Keen says, it’s important to note that she studies moods overall, not on a day-to-day basis.

“We all have better and worse days, right?”

But Keen is hoping she can make these bears’ “worse days” better.

Copyright 2012 Northwest Public Radio