Late last year, as Brody the bear cub approached the 100-pound mark, keepers began to prepare adult bear Cheyenne for life with her new “roommate.” Because Cheyenne had never shared her habitat with another member of her species, we weren’t sure how she would react to Brody’s presence. Bears are extremely strong and potentially dangerous animals, so animal care staff needed to devise a plan for separating our pair if Cheyenne became too aggressive upon introduction.
Keeper Marc Franzen worked with Cheyenne to train recall behavior, which involves the use of a cue to quickly draw an animal to an area that can be secured. It is most helpful in emergency situations, such as intraspecies conflict or a compromised habitat perimeter.
The key to a successful recall is to offer a “high-value reward” that is more enticing to an animal than what they are currently doing. This is typically an extra-tasty food item that is not a part of the animal’s regular diet.
Marc began the training process in the bear night house, or “bedroom.” One keeper would engage in a play session with Cheyenne (through the safety of a mesh barrier) while another stood a few feet away and blew a whistle. Cheyenne received a reward every time she walked away from the play session and approached the whistleblower.
As Cheyenne began to respond to the whistle reliably, the two keepers would stand further apart, and Cheyenne would only be given the reward if she ran over to the whistleblower. She mastered this behavior after a couple of months, and she will now run to the whistleblower from any part of her habitat.
Fortunately, the bears’ introduction went smoothly, and we had no reason to recall Cheyenne while she was sharing space with Brody. Keepers maintain this behavior by recalling her every 2–4 weeks, changing up the reward and other variables to keep Cheyenne on her toes.