Nestled at the top of Bear Wood
is a den, complete with four straw beds. Not too hard, not too soft, but juuuust right. Sheltered from the elements, the den is a cosy hideaway for our four European brown bears: Gemini, Albie, Neo and Nilas.
It’s also the place where the bears come for training – an essential part of caring for them, and a good source of stimulation and fun for these inquisitive creatures.
We met keeper Anna Head, and joined brothers Neo and Nilas, to find out what goes on during their training sessions.
Face to face
Walking towards the den, it was hard not to feel nervous at the thought of coming up close to bears. But we were at ease as soon as we saw the playful relationship between Anna and the animals.
How to train your bear
Anna starts off by telling us how the bears are trained, and it’s clear as we chat that Neo is excited to see us (he knows there are tasty treats to be had!). There is a list of movements and behaviours which are taught, and Anna talks us through some of the important ones:
- Target: this is the first technique taught to the bears. The bears touch their nose to a stick with a brightly coloured tip. This allows rangers to move them easily between different parts of the den
- Recall: teaches the animals to come back to a bell or whistle sound
- Stand up: the bears stand on their hind legs, and paws are lifted to allow visual checks and to trim claws if needed
- Ear and eye exam: the head is tilted on each side to allow for veterinary exams
- Paw sleeve: the paw is put into a small space, eventually for long enough to take blood
It’s amazing to then watch Anna go through these movements with Neo. After each move is completed correctly, Anna blows a whistle and offers a treat – both the sound and the reward reinforce positive behaviour. Neo is free to leave the den at any time, as it is kept open during training, but he stays and gets as many treats as he can!
One key reason the bears are trained is to allow keepers and vets to check their health safely. If the bears are well trained, vets can carry out x-rays, blood tests and give medication without needing to anaesthetise the animals.
A date to remember
More than that, our bears enjoy the training! Not only do they love the rewards, including protein-packed peanuts and sweet dates, but they like the interaction and stimulation. Bears are intelligent and highly adaptable, and learning new skills is something they would always do in the wild. We couldn’t believe our luck, as Anna was happy for us to give Neo a treat. We were initially wary of being nibbled, but Neo gently took the date and licked our fingers!
Anna tells us that all four bears have distinct approaches to learning and playing. Neo is initially wary but keen to train. Nilas is very relaxed, but quick and clever. Gemini is independent and learns very quickly. Albie is intelligent but a little bit lazy – Anna tells us he tries to outwit the keepers and pretends to stand up when he’s sitting down! We know the feeling…
In between being splattered with mud by an enthusiastic Neo, we took the chance to find out more about keeper Anna. Just exactly how do you come to look after four cheeky bears? Anna studied Zoology at university before becoming a Wild Place Project volunteer
. When the role of animal keeper came up, she jumped at the chance! And having spent the day with these intelligent, playful animals, who wouldn’t?
On your next visit to Wild Place Project, spot our bears and check out the animal ‘report card’ in Bear Wood to see how training is going!