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If you give a bear a puzzle…

When it comes to creating puzzles for bears to solve, food is an excellent motivator. That’s the main idea behind the WSU Bear Center’s enrichment program.

Brandon holds a bucket in one hand and throws food onto a pile of wood with the other hand.
Brandon Hutzenbiler hides food in wood piles for the bears to find in their exercise yard.

“We’re getting more and more complex, adding pulleys and multiple-action solutions,” said Center manager Brandon Hutzenbiler. “But the simplest enrichment, hiding food in the exercise yard, is really the best.”

Scattering kibble throughout the grass and clover, along with the apples and oranges hidden in log piles or on top of posts, attempts to replicate foraging strategies the bears would use in the wild. Searching out their food in the yard stimulates our bears to use their sensitive noses, long claws, and powerful muscles to locate and retrieve food.

The enrichment program was started in 2016 to mentally and physically challenge the bears, both in the yard and in their runs.

The program started small, with holes drilled in PVC pipe or apple slices hidden in woven fire hose. But it’s become more complex as the bears have solved every puzzle thrown at them.

Hutzenbiler particularly likes the pulley puzzles, which require the bears to do at least two actions to get to the food. In one, they have to stand up, pull down a tube filled with food, then shake or spin it to get the food out.

“They’re very smart,” Hutzenbiler said. “They’ve each developed their own strategies. Some just pull it down, some pin it against the sides. They use their strengths to solve the problem.”

Many of the ideas for new puzzles come from a relationship a previous manager had with a bear sanctuary called Animals Asia. But these aren’t off the shelf items: Hutzenbiler and a few volunteers build each item by hand, often with donated equipment.

Brandon crouches on a concrete floor surrounded by PVC pipe, pulleys, wrenches and sockets, a tire, and large, colorful plastic spindles.
Brandon Hutzenbiler assembles a pulley puzzle as he preps for another day of enrichment for our WSU bears.

“It’s really been donations that have kept this going,” Hutzenbiler said. “And it’s so beneficial to the bears. They’ve caught on to the program and know when to expect new items. They start getting excited when we’re setting the puzzles up.”

The food used in the enrichment items is the standard bear kibble, plus a variety of fruit items. Much of the fruit is donated by the local Safeway grocery store’s produce department.

“Getting those donations established has been instrumental in making this program better,” Hutzenbiler said.

The program is also a great way to show the public some of the skills the bears possess.

“We do important research here with our bears, but the when the public shows up they don’t really see that,” Hutzenbiler said. “So this program demonstrates just how strong and intelligent the bears are. We see a great visceral reaction when visitor watch the bears showing what they can do.”