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Bottle-fed grizzlies make nice for science

Baby bottles, pacifiers and kiddie pools are among the most important tools being used by scientists  at Washington State University’s one-of-a-kind Bear Research Center as they breed and hand-rear grizzly cubs. By's Mike Stuckey.

On the leading edge of grizzly bear research, sometimes it all comes down to baby bottles, pacifiers and kiddie pools.

Those are among the most important tools being used by scientists here at Washington State University’s one-of-a-kind Bear Research Center as they breed and hand-rear grizzly cubs in a bid to create safer subjects for wide-ranging research on Ursus arctos horribilis.

When he founded the center two decades ago, zoology professor Dr. Charles Robbins was happy to have a captive audience of “problem” adult grizzlies who had been given the boot from national parks like Yellowstone and Glacier. “The whole facility was set up in 1986 because there’s only so much you can do with wild bears,” he points out.

With its half-dozen pens and 2.2-acre exercise yard, the bear center, cobbled together from an old primate research facility, allowed Robbins and colleagues to make big strides in their studies of what bears eat, how they forage and other topics.

But the wild bruins, pulled from their native homes because of garbage-eating and picnic-stealing habits that brought them too close to humans, were on one side of the heavy steel fences and the humans were on the other side. So when Dr. Lynne Nelson, a heart specialist in WSU’s College of Veterinary Medicine, wanted to conduct studies on hibernation, one of the great mysteries in all the animal kingdom, the bears needed to be drugged to allow researchers to draw their blood and capture ultrasound images of their hearts.

Is it hibernation or is it drugs?
Not such a good scenario. “Since hibernation can look a lot like anesthesia, it was very hard to delineate the effects of the drugs from the effects of the physical state,” Nelson explains. In fact, says Robbins, “It became pretty clear that 70 percent of the results were due to the anesthesia.”

“That’s when we frankly decided that if we were ever going to learn anything true about hibernation, we’d have to bottle-feed them,” he says. “At that point we decided, ‘Let’s raise some bears.’”

Two of the center’s adult females were allowed to breed in 2002 and gave birth in 2003 to Mica and Luna. The baby girls, about the size of big baked potatoes when born, were taken away from their moms after four weeks. Robbins and Nelson stepped in as surrogate parents to nurture, bottle-feed and gently but firmly train the bears not to bite or jump on their human handlers.

Will work for treats
That training has paid off as the furry research subjects approach three years in age and tip the scales at 250 pounds each. In exchange for treats like apples, honey water and Starbucks pastries, Mica and Luna are eager to help their human handlers probe the secrets of hibernation by holding out their paws for blood tests, and standing for fairly long periods in one place to accommodate ultrasound readings.

The knowledge gained from the WSU-led studies and others in which the bears, currently a total of 10, are employed has a direct payoff for the species itself, which is on the federal government’s list of threatened animals — outside of Alaska. By learning more about how bears feed and interact with humans and other species, the researchers can advise wildlife managers as they try to maintain viable populations of the threatened giants.

Helped partly by Robbins’ work, Yellowstone’s bear recovery program is successful enough by some measures that the government is thinking about removing Endangered Species Act protections from grizzlies in that vicinity, an idea denounced by many conservationists.

But grizzly bear politics are far from the minds of the newest stars at the WSU bear center, Peeka and Kio, sister cubs who were born this year and are being raised the same way Mica and Luna were, with a few changes.

One of those is that they’ve been given pacifiers in the hopes that they don’t develop Mica’s annoying habit of sucking their palms like children suck their thumbs, which Mica picked up while she cuddled as a cub in the laps of her human “parents.”

And the lap-cuddling got cut off too. “We assumed they would grow out of it. Luna did, Mica didn’t,” Nelson says. “What’s cute now is not cute at 300 to 400 pounds.”

With Peeka already weighing in at 72 pounds and Kio at 89 pounds, the cubs don’t go home with Mama Lynne and Daddy Charlie any more, but they still have extensive personal contact with humans, both researchers and select guests, during the long summer days at the bear center.

Bottom line: Be good bears
Much of that contact is simply about teaching the cubs to be as well-behaved as possible when they are with people so that the scientists can have the “greatest amount of safety for the longest amount of time” as the studies proceed, says Nelson.

A typical visit with humans for Kio and Peeka begins with the cubs allowed to race from their dog-kennel-like pen to the adjacent exercise yard where they are greeted with baby bottles by Robbins and Nelson. The girls suck the bottles dry in a couple minutes and go romping around the roomy, chain-link enclosure like high-spirited puppies.

They roll and snort in the green clover, which they also eat in large clumps and dig in searching for rodents. From time to time, they tussle with each other, even standing on their hind legs to engage in an impromptu boxing match. When they tire of each other, they tumble between the legs of their human friends, drawing the stern commands of “Off!” and “No bite!”

Then it’s off to a plastic child’s pool where Kio and Peeka splash and ham for the camera as if they were trained in Hollywood. After soaking their thick, slightly silver-tipped fur, they rub and wriggle on the clover, drying their coats like delighted dogs.

Although Nelson, Robbins and their colleagues are free with affectionate pats, scratches and fond words for their ursine charges, they draw the line at playing with them, ever mindful that a playful nip or poke from a 75-pound cub is one thing while the same interaction with a 750-pound adult male grizzly would be quite another.

The whole point of the hand-rearing project is to keep the grizzlies available as long as possible for studies that are more easily done via direct human contact. How long will that be? “We don’t really know and we’re kind of waiting to see how they mature,” Nelson says.

While Nelson and Robbins hope to work in person with Mica, Luna, Peeka and Kio well into the bears’ adulthoods, they know they’re in uncharted territory and constantly evaluate their subjects for clues to changing personalities that could make them decide it’s unsafe to continue.

At this point, Robbins, Nelson and vet school technician Pam Thompson are the only humans to join Mica and Luna inside their enclosures. And once Peeka and Kio go into hibernation this fall, they’ll no longer be entertaining visitors on the same side of the fence either.

Nelson harbors no illusions about the potential danger. The center’s six adult bears must still be tranquilized for tests because “I wouldn’t dream of going in with them to do it.”

But Nelson and Robbins do dream of a greatly expanded facility, one three times the size of the current Bear Research Center. Pointing to land just across the road, Robbins outlines his vision for a “dedicated facility that would meet national needs in terms of understanding bears”: 18 pens and three separate outside areas; larger pools; sterile medical suites; room for more than 20 bears and the possibility of adding a second species to study.

Such a facility would also be much easier to manage. With the addition of remotely controlled chutes and doors, the adult bears from the wild could be herded into people-safe spaces appropriate for training them to participate in some studies without being tranquilized, Nelson says.

Goal: $5 million
Robbins is trying to raise $5 million, which seems a huge amount of money compared with the center’s annual operating budget of $60,000.

He’s able to run the center on such a shoestring because he donates a lot of his own time and gets help from others like Nelson and graduate student Jennifer Fortin, who splits time between the WSU campus and field studies in Alaska, where she is examining how grizzlies and black bears share salmon resources.

“Jen and I are here on Saturday and Sunday, taking care of bears,” he says. “And we depend a lot on undergrads who just want to have the experience.”

More information on Washington State’s Bear Research, Education and Conservation Program is available at this university Web site.