Boo! Training a Bear: 2018
Readers were introduced to Boo, a male grizzly bear (Ursus arctos), in the Winter 2018 issue of the IAABC Journal. Born in 2002, Boo weighs around 550-600 pounds in the spring, and up to 750-850 pounds in the winter before hibernation.
We came to take care of Boo after he and his brother Cari were orphaned at approximately 5 months of age, when their mother was shot by a poacher. They were initially housed at a habitat on Grouse Mountain. B.C., Canada, while a new, state-of-the-art 20-acre habitat at Kicking Horse Mountain, B.C. (KHR) was built. Since 2003, Boo has resided in this sub-alpine mountain habitat enclosure, the largest of its kind for a single brown (grizzly) bear.
As you may recall, we introduced an official training program on June 19, 2017. Our initial goal was to have a reliable method to get Boo from his main habitat into his holding area in case of emergency, and to reduce the frequency of stress behaviors we had observed when he needed to be locked into this space. Additionally, we intended to progress toward having him voluntarily participate in routine veterinary procedures, such as dental checks and injections.
Training sessions were always conducted with secure barriers between Boo and the people working with him. Each training scenario had its own specific safety setup. When working on targeting behaviors we work at “den corner,” the first point of contact as we drive up the road on the east side of his enclosure. This area offers a large, flat space for training, with an 8-foot electric fence as a safety barrier. This is also Boo’s isolation area, a 1-acre enclosure for holding if repairs need to be done in the habitat, or in the event a human or another bear enters the enclosure.
The holding area is an approximately 50-foot x 50-foot space with 12-foot metal fences, and we work from the roof of his attached winter den. Electric fences run the perimeter of this area. This is where we work on recall training as well as the sliding door (slide) empowerment training.
When we closed the gate on Boo for the final time on October 16, 2017, as he went into torpor, we knew we had broken his trust and were unsure where that would leave us in our training progression come spring. Our successes in training had been based on building his trust and giving him control—he could always choose to leave his den and holding areas. After he was locked in that final day, he exhibited strong stress reactions, including human-directed aggression and severe digging around his enclosure. Given this reaction, we were unsure whether he would choose to continue training and be open to trusting us once again.
Our plan for 2018 was to continue working on the emergency recall, slide empowerment, hold, wide mouth, and target training. Our goal was to see progress in the behaviours becoming more reliable and fluent. We also chose to introduce a new behavior, if possible: co-operating during an injection. Voluntary injection training would involve Boo accepting an injection in the rear leg through a mesh fence. Injections had previously only been administered via blow dart, a far more stressful method.
Emergency recall training results
While Boo’s emergency recall training was very good at the end of 2017, this year we endeavored to strengthen it by varying the time of day and introducing new distractions. We also reinstated the use of the whistle, which we had used in previous years, to cue Boo to recall to the point at the fence where the whistle originated for food rewards; we also taught a distinct recall cue using the bell, which called him to the holding area, and included training and higher-value rewards. We were thrilled that Boo picked up his training right where we left off, and showed progress with new behaviours much more quickly than he had the previous year. Some of the highlights during 2018 included:
In 2017, Boo averaged approximately ten minutes to emerge from the forest and come to the whistle call point. For the first whistle recall of the year, Boo took only two minutes to arrive at the whistle point.
Boo also averaged four minutes last year to enter the holding area for the emergency bell recall exercise. For the first bell recall of the year in 2018, he only took three minutes.
We added another element of distraction to his recall training by giving him a cow carcass. After allowing him to enjoy this for an hour, we rang the emergency recall bell to call him away from the carcass and into holding area. He responded immediately to the bell, although he moved more slowly to his destination, needing to mark his territory several times along the way.
Additionally, we observed an interesting behavior development several times in 2018. In 2017, we had sometimes observed Boo waiting right next to the holding area when we arrived, anticipating training and a high-value sardine burrito. When this was the case, we did not ring the bell or deliver the reward. This year, we would arrive for a session and Boo was nowhere in sight, so we would ring the bell to recall him to the holding area. He would immediately pop out of the bushes next to the holding area to receive his treat. Our theory is he had started to anticipate the training, but realized if he was waiting for us within sight we did not ring the bell, and he did not receive his sardine burrito. By staying out of sight, the bell and the treat came. Smart bear!
Injection training/medical training
Injection training built upon the “hold” behaviour we taught last year, which had Boo stand parallel to the fence and hold his nose on the target stick until we clicked, followed by a reward. This year, in addition to the target stick, we introduced a second stick and a verbal cue indicating this stick would poke his hindquarters. Boo was initially wary about this procedure, as his caregivers had rarely, if ever, tried to touch him directly with any object. As mentioned previously, injections had previously been delivered by blow dart, and generally when his back was turned.
Unfortunately, we had to test this new procedure much sooner than we would have preferred. In early July, rangers noticed Boo scratching much more than usual, and showing signs of discomfort and grumpiness during training. It was determined that he very likely had lice, which is common among animals in the area. After consulting with his veterinarian, he was prescribed a bear-sized dose of Revolution topical treatment, the same treatment used for domestic dogs for parasite treatment and prevention. The liquid medicine is applied between the shoulder blades, a simple procedure for most pet dogs—not so simple for a grizzly bear.
We quickly decided to adapt the injection training we were doing to allow for topical medicinal treatment. We devised a pole with a cup on the end to hold the liquid, then continued training but moved the stick poke from the hindquarters to the shoulders. We repeated the “hold” cue, but this time placed the second pole with the cup in such a way so he had to walk under it to reach the target and receive a treat. The first time we touched Boo with the cup he swatted at the stick, bluff charged, vocalized, and walked away. Although he was wary of the stick, we made sure he knew it was there every time and what our intent was when we used it. Our goal with all training was to be completely transparent about everything we did, in the hopes he would come to trust and accept it. Grizzly bears do not like surprises.
After a week of practicing this behaviour we decided we needed to try it for real to ease his obvious discomfort due to the lice. On July 15 we did three test runs before putting the medicine in the cup and delivering it.
Video credit: Nicole Gangnon
Upon feeling the liquid hit his shoulders, he turned towards us and vocalized his displeasure, but was heavily rewarded with smoked oysters, honey, and milk bones. Shortly after, he started walking to his swimming pool, presumably to wash the sensation off his back. Thankfully, his target behaviour was so strong that we were successful in bringing him back and keeping him out of the water for a few hours, allowing the medicine time to penetrate. Within a few days it seemed clear the medication was a success, with scratching returning to normal, and the grumpiness seeming to dissipate.
We resumed the hindquarter injection training, and got Boo to a point by the end of summer where he was very accepting of the poke from the stick.
Video credit: Cat Cowen
Slide empowerment training
On May 17, 2018, Boo was temporarily locked into his holding area for the first time since being released in the spring so some necessary work could be done on his habitat. Boo watched as the door closed, and remained locked in without any apparent stress reactions for 23 minutes. We did several subsequent lock-ins throughout the summer, again without observing any signs of stress. On October 22, as he approached torpor, we noticed he seemed nervous for the first time when locked into the holding area. He was still interested in his food supplements, but moved between slides more frequently, and was not as relaxed as we had seen during the summer lock-ins. This wasn’t entirely surprising as we had lowered the curtains that block the mesh of the holding area the day before, something that in the past had only been done once he was locked in for the winter.
Locked in for winter
On November 9, after two days of Boo not responding to recalls and not spotting him within his habitat, we increased the value of the recall rewards to get serious about moving him into his winter holding area. We rang the emergency recall bell at 10:59 a.m., from the usual location on his den roof, and continued to ring it every five minutes, but gradually moved from the holding area to the opposite side of his enclosure. From that point, propane stoves were fired up and we began cooking an irresistible mixture of bacon, smoked oysters, and trout. At 12:15 p.m. Boo finally appeared at the tree line, scenting the air for approximately 20 minutes before descending the mountain toward the south fence.
Once he reached us, we asked for nose targets along the fence line, gradually moving him from the south side along the east fence toward his holding area. When cued to go through the isolation gate (the point of no return toward the holding area), he refused three times, and demonstrated displacement behaviour by rubbing on a tree. We could only assume he knew what was finally in store. The third time he walked away he retreated into his habitat around the isolation area toward the direction of the west door of the holding area. When Boo arrived at the holding area, one of his caregivers was on the roof of the den and talked calmly to him, encouraging him to enter. After approximately 4 minutes of this, Boo chose to enter the holding area. Once in and engaged in eating his reward, another caregiver calmly approached the west door and closed it. Unlike the previous year, Boo did not show any human-directed aggression once the door closed, which we took as a huge sign of progress. Although he exhibited some digging behavior, it was not nearly as extreme as in the previous year.
December 5 2018: hibernation/torpor begins
Boo is monitored by an infrared camera located within the ceiling of his den and a thermometer in the den to read temperature and humidity. He is checked on daily, any activity recorded is put into a digital observation sheet. The surveillance system is run by solar power backed by batteries.
Once Boo enters his den for 24 hours straight, he has officially begun his torpor state. Most refer to this period as hibernation, but there is a difference between the two. Torpor is the term used to refer to the dormant state bears enter during the long winter months. Boo will stay in his den for approximately four months, but has gone as long as five months.
When spring arrives, bringing warmer temperatures, Boo begins to stir in the den. Each day with increasing activity inside the den he prepares to exit his den by licking and biting his paw pads to toughen the skin up. Once Boo has emerged from the den he is in what is known as walking hibernation. This is when bears leave their den and are active, but their metabolic process has not returned to normal. This stage can last two to three weeks, and bears voluntarily eat and drink less and naturally excrete less.
We were extremely encouraged by Boo’s progress in 2018. The foundation of our training program has been concerned with giving him empowerment and choice. The fact that he chose to go into the holding area on his own, despite signs he was to be locked in for winter, showed incredible progress and trust. When you develop an open and trusting relationship, there is no end to what you can accomplish!
Follow Boo’s training at:
Cindy Peacock, CPDT-KA, KPA-CTP, is the Lead Trainer at Kicking Horse Grizzly Bear Refuge in Golden, BC. She is also the Head of behaviour for Chasin’ Tails Dog Care Center in Calgary, AB and offers private animal behaviour counselling in Western Canada. Cindy holds regular seminars on multi-species training and dog behaviour.
Cover image credit: Larry Tooze