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Toys stimulate and feed WSU bears

Posted by | June 9, 2016


Traffic cones, rubber tractor tires, old fire hoses and PVC pipes. All of these, it turns out, are great places to hide tomatoes, apples and oranges from bears.

Bears search for snacks placed in enrichment toys, made by Bear Center staff and volunteers.
Bears search for snacks placed in enrichment toys, made by Bear Center staff and volunteers.

And they’re all used as part of the Washington State University Bear Research, Education, and Conservation Center’s growing environmental enrichment program.

“Various enrichment items provide different forms of mental stimulation for our bears,” said Dr. Monica Bando, manager of the Bear Center. “The goal is to promote natural behaviors, such as foraging. The challenge for us is developing a variety of enrichment items to stimulate different senses.”

Bears have access to an outdoor enclosure almost every day, but Bando wants to keep the bears mentally spry even when they aren’t in the yard.

Bando said she would love to see a new purpose-built bear center so all of the bears could enjoy enclosure access every day. Until then, it is imperative to continue providing and developing the environmental enrichment efforts to ensure the mental well-being of our bears.

“The various enrichment items challenge them in different ways,” Bando said. “Some are puzzle feeders, where they have to figure out how to get to the food. Some items are toys they can play with that also allow us to put smears, sauces, or different food items at different heights or in different locations. The aim is to provide novelty, so each day presents something different, whether it be different enrichment items or different tastes, smells and textures.”

Volunteers and staff at the WSU Bear Center put fruit and fish sauce on the enrichment toys, including a tire hammock the bears love to lay on.
Volunteers and staff at the WSU Bear Center put fruit and fish sauce on the enrichment toys, including a tire hammock the bears love to lay on.

Bando and Bear Center staffers and volunteers make most of the items used to keep the bears attentive. They have occasional “toy making” times, when they get together to bolt fire hoses onto a tractor tire or create novel items from cut tires, hanging each half from ends of a PVC pipe.

“We try to get creative,” Bando said. “It takes a lot of time and our volunteers are invaluable. They’re passionate and really care about helping keep the bears entertained and happy.”

The items are rotated every day or two, so the bears don’t get bored with the same toys or challenges. Bando, other staffers, and volunteers clean the pens, then set up the new items each day. They really like to see how each bear reacts to new things.

“You just never know what will be a big hit,” Bando said. “The tire hammocks are proving to be very popular. They are not easy to make, each one takes around six to eight hours to complete, but our volunteers agree it is well worth the effort when you observe our bears curled up, sleeping on them. And with our puzzle feeders, if there is food in it, our bears will enjoy it.”

Bears at the WSU Bear Center find fruit hidden inside tubes constructed to challenge them, instead of just giving them the food.
Bears at the WSU Bear Center find fruit hidden inside tubes constructed to challenge them, instead of just giving them the food.

One item the bears all enjoy but repels pretty much every human in the area is a thick fish sauce. The smell is…strong.

“We just paint the fish sauce on any surface and they love it,” Bando said. “The cubs just want to roll around in it. We think it’s pretty smelly, but they can’t seem to get enough, so we use it liberally.”

There’s no set time for when the items are rotated, but Bando and others often answer questions from visitors while they’re setting up enrichment.

“We like letting people know more about our bears,” she said. “Teaching people about these amazing animals is one more reason why we do what we do.”

Learn more about WSU Bear Center research at https://bearcenter.wsu.edu/.