Boo! Training a Bear 2019
Readers were introduced to Boo, a male grizzly bear (Ursus arctos horriblis), in the Winter 2018 and Winter 2019 issues 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.
2019 marked the third year of our training program with Boo, which was officially introduced 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 worked 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 area for training, with an 8-foot electric fence as a safety barrier. This is also his isolation area, a 1-acre area 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 20 x 20-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.
Our plan for 2019 was to continue working on the fluency and reliability of the behaviours we had taught in the previous two years, particularly emergency recall, slide empowerment, hold, wide mouth, and target training. In 2018 we had started on voluntary injection training, only to adapt the end goal to allow us to apply a topical medication when it became apparent we needed to treat lice he had contracted that were making him obviously uncomfortable. This year we restarted our original goal. Voluntary injection training would involve Boo accepting an injection in the rear leg through a mesh fence. This had previously only been administered via blow dart, a method that was very stressful to both Boo and his caregivers. Our biggest obstacle was to get Boo to feel comfortable being trained through the mesh of his holding area. Although we had made great strides in his comfort in this space, he was accustomed to us being above him on the roof of the building, not at his level.
To increase his comfort with us being in close proximity to him, we decided to switch it up. We let Boo stay on the outside of the holding area (with access to his 20-acre habitat) and had the trainers locked into the holding area. Allowing Boo to have choice and control over his participation made all of the difference, and within one session we had him approaching the mesh to take juice out of a bottle. He was initially nervous of this new training setup so we worked through the season to make him comfortable by practicing it with his most fluent behaviours.
We had another breakthrough with scale training this year, surprisingly, by lowering the value of the reinforcer. In the past we had always used fish as the reinforcer for successful weighing. The challenge became that the fish was high enough value that Boo would immediately take it to a nearby cache spot to savor, making it difficult to get an accurate reading on the scale. By lowering the value of the reinforcer to Milk Bones, Boo stayed more engaged with the training session and we were able to get him to stand and hold position on the scale to get the most reliable weight reading possible.
On June 3, 2019, there was an accident on the highway about an hour west of us; a large truck carrying fresh salmon from the West Coast had rolled, dumping much of the cargo, making it unsafe for human consumption. The unfortunate event ended up benefiting Boo and the training team because we were able to acquire approximately 500 pounds of fresh salmon for free. This allowed us to have consistent access to one of the highest-value reinforcers for conditioning a positive response to the holding area. Those quantities allowed us to practice slide empowerment training on average twice weekly, and we made huge strides in how comfortable Boo seemed when locked into his holding area.
Boo gets his first whole salmon!
Locked in for winter
Oct 29, 2019 – Refuge manager, Nicole, was unable to locate Boo in his habitat throughout the day. This is almost always the initial indicator it is time to get him locked in to his holding area and artificial den. For safety reasons, we need Boo to spend the winter in his holding area with the den we provide. The larger habitat is enclosed with an electric fence and is not able to be properly maintained once the area gets heavy snowfalls of winter.
Oct 30, 2019 – At 9 am Boo did not show up for his morning supplements. Nicole rang the emergency recall bell but did not see any movement within the habitat. She began cooking bacon on the den roof, the one thing that reliably seems to get Boo out of bed. She continued to ring the recall bell every five minutes for a full hour until he showed up at the top of the hill. He took about 20 minutes to descend the hill and get to the outside of the holding area, a descent that would only take a few minutes in the summer.
Boo hesitated outside the holding area door for another five minutes, until Nicole said “Okay, buddy, it’s time,” and he proceeded through the gate. She closed the gate behind him, and Boo was rewarded with regular food plus a few pieces of freshly cooked bacon. He did one half-hearted bluff charge when she lowered the final drapes over the gate. However, for the first time there was no human-directed aggression or angry digging during or after locking him in. This year was the first time that the lock-in procedure only took one person to successfully accomplish.
November 17, 2019 – 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.
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, and any activity recorded is put into a digital observation sheet. The surveillance system is run by solar power backed by batteries.
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.
March 17, 2020 – Boo wakes up to a very different world.
Credit: Nicole Gagnon via ViralSnare
When we started Boo’s development program three years ago, our goal was to test the success of a trusted relationship and choice-based empowerment-style training with a grizzly bear. We believed that not only was this type of program more humane, but it could ultimately lead to important health and safety advancements and less stress on both the bear and the trainers and keepers.
Teaching Boo he had choices and, ultimately, to willingly perform a behavior that he initially didn’t want to do was immensely gratifying for the whole team. The final seasonal lock‑in went from being an incredibly stressful event three years ago to something much more routine. This was all the more remarkable because, while we practiced and maintained behaviors throughout the year, we truly only got to test the final lock-in three times – once each year.
To see the progress he made from year one, when it took at least two trainers and was accompanied by Boo’s excessive stress-exhibiting behaviors, to year three, when one trainer was able to achieve it with very minor protest from the bear, felt like a remarkable result. Ultimately, it supported our theory that, with patience, practice, trust, and transparency, we can achieve unprecedented positive returns. This bodes well for important future advancements for injections and blood draws, and for ensuring a happy and healthy bear.
Follow Boo’s training at:
Cindy Peacock, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, KPA CTP, is the lead trainer at Kicking Horse Grizzly Bear Refuge in Golden, British Columbia. She is also the head of behaviour for Chasin’ Tails Dog Care Center in Calgary, Alberta, and offers private animal behaviour consulting in Western Canada as well as online. Cindy holds regular seminars and webinars on multi-species training and dog behaviour.