Former volunteer uses creativity to help bears

New experiences are even richer when the people in charge know what you’re going through. Volunteers at the WSU Bear Research, Education, and Conservation Center have that person.

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

“I was so excited to be a volunteer when I was in school at WSU,” said Brandon Evans Hutzenbiler, the Bear Center manager. “So getting new volunteers involved and getting to see how the bears behave is a lot of fun.”

Hutzenbiler became the center’s manager in 2016 but has been around the bears for several years. After graduating in spring 2014, and finishing his time volunteering later that summer, Hutzenbiler started working with the bears on a project led by WSU professor Heiko Jansen.

He eventually earned a paid position in Jansen’s lab and continued to help on projects both in the lab and at the center.

Bear Center director Keith Blatner asked Hutzenbiler to take over as manager when the position became available, and he’s embraced the opportunity to continue working with the bears. His favorite part is working on the enrichment program that keeps the bears mentally stimulated during their active (non-hibernation) period.

“It’s beneficial to the bears in a very direct way,” Hutzenbiler said. “And it forces me to be creative. We have a limited budget, and the bears like to move on once they’ve solved one device. So keeping things fresh for them is a fun challenge.”

In years past, the enrichment program has included large barrels that spin on an axis, with small holes where food comes out. Or food hidden in pockets formed by overlapping straps of interwoven fire hose.

As anyone who works with bears will tell you, they are very food-motivated. But they don’t all react the same to enrichment items.

Brandon holds a bottle for a bear cub as the cub drinks milk from it.
Hutzenbiler with bear cubs in 2015.

“They definitely have their own personalities,” Hutzenbiler said. “For instance, Oakley is incredibly smart. She can figure out anything we throw at her, really fast. She’s meticulous. But Luna, the largest female, breaks everything to get the food. She’s all about brute force to get what she wants.”

In the winter, Hutzenbiler returns primarily to lab work while the bears sleep away the cold weather. His skill set is fairly unusual, having hands-on experience with the bears while also knowing how to culture fat cells in a lab.

“Brandon is a huge part of the center,” Blatner said. “His devotion to the bears, and his joy in working with them, makes for a better center. We’re deeply appreciative of the work he does.”

Starting as a student volunteer to now making sure the bears are cared for and attended to on a daily basis, Hutzenbiler has come a long way. But he’s just happy to still be involved with the bears.

“I love working with and being around animals,” Hutzenbiler said. “I’m endlessly fascinated by them, and can’t think of anything I’d rather do.”