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Sunday, March 24, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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WSU report criticizes school’s grizzly bear lab

A grizzly bear in the enclosure at WSU’s Bear Research, Conservation and Education Center on Tuesday, March 8, 2016. (Chad Sokol / The Spokesman-Review)
A grizzly bear in the enclosure at WSU’s Bear Research, Conservation and Education Center on Tuesday, March 8, 2016. (Chad Sokol / The Spokesman-Review)
By Chad Sokol Correspondent

PULLMAN – A grizzly bear research lab at Washington State University has problems with the treatment of its captive animals, an investigation by school officials found.

A report released Tuesday revealed, among other concerns, that two bear cubs had to be euthanized in 2010 because their health deteriorated after they failed to hibernate in captivity.

Concerns about the grizzlies’ well-being were raised in August after an Associated Press reporter filed a public records request regarding WSU’s Bear Research, Education and Conservation Center.

That request prompted the investigation by university administrators.

Among the report’s findings:

  • Some drugs used for sedating bears were not approved by WSU’s veterinary department until after they were administered, despite clearly stated protocols.
  • The facility layout makes it difficult to move sedated bears into the surgery room along a path that includes three 90-degree turns through a narrow hallway. “Making these turns requires simultaneously lifting and turning the gurney, posing risk to the animal and the workers.”
  • Bears new to the center should be quarantined, or isolated, for at least their first 30 days, although the facility lacks a dedicated quarantine room.
  • The facility lacks several recommended systems, including fire sprinklers, video cameras for monitoring bears during hibernation and lights that would automatically flip on during power outages.
  • Twenty years of “difficult relations” between bear center management and the campus veterinarian’s office have contributed to a range of problems at the facility.

Kim Kidwell, acting dean of WSU’s College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences, said Tuesday, “We love our bears, and the few that are used for research at WSU are only a small portion of all the bears we’re helping to protect through conservation research.”

The bear research center is co-administered by Kidwell’s department and the College of Arts and Sciences. The 28-year-old facility on the eastern edge of campus includes six bear dens and a 2.2-acre yard where the bears are allowed to roam and play each day. Research conducted there covers a range of disciplines, including sleep, behavior, nutrition and physiology. Some studies have analyzed the bears’ ability to maintain muscle mass while hibernating; others examined the effects of urban encroachment on their natural habitat.

Its staff includes five faculty researchers, five graduate students and up to seven undergraduate volunteers.

Following the WSU investigation, two supervisors at the center were “temporarily reassigned” to other WSU positions, said WSU spokeswoman Marta Coursey. The director of the Office of the Campus Veterinarian, Dr. Steve Russell, was replaced by Dr. Nina Woodford, while the bear facility director, Dr. Charles Robbins, was replaced by Dr. Keith Blatner.

Blatner declined to comment on the report Wednesday.

“Emails and interviews document over 20 years of difficult relations between the Center and the OCV, a history that spans multiple leaders of the OCV,” the report says. “This must be rectified immediately.”

The research center’s accreditation was “reaffirmed” this week by AAALAC International, a governing body for the humane treatment of research animals.

Kidwell said the findings of the investigation add urgency to fundraising efforts for an updated $20 million facility. “Our biggest concern is the size of the bear facility,” she said.

To address concerns, Kidwell and five other WSU officials toured the facility and interviewed employees. They wrote in the report, “Some interviewees expressed concern about their ability to avoid harm should something go wrong while working with a bear.”

The two cubs preparing to hibernate in 2010 were placed into a single metal cage that should be two to three times the length of the bear’s body and tall enough that the bear won’t hit its head or back on the ceiling, according to the report.

But the cubs “never entered into full hibernation” and were removed from the cage, by which time “their health had deteriorated so severely that both bears had to be euthanized,” the report says. “Unknown to us is whether the Center’s employment of the traps is consistent with best practices.”

Euthanasia also is used for population control.

With a maximum capacity of 13 adult bears, the facility must euthanize additional bears that are born on site or acquired from zoos or wildlife refuges, the report says. State laws have restricted the facility from sending extra bears elsewhere, it says.

The facility currently houses 11 bears of various ages. Two adults were euthanized in January so researchers could collect tissue samples.

Administrators said the facility needs to hire additional staff, keep better track of records on the bears’ health and cooperate more closely with the campus veterinarian’s office, which has “the final authority on all issues related to bear health.”

Lastly, the report says, “We are confident that investment of the time and resources indicated in this report will rectify the problems that we have identified.”

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