Heavenly bear came to live permanently at Southwest Wildlife in 2014. Just a youngster, he was found injured and most likely orphaned near Heavenly Ski Resort in California. Several nonprofits went to great lengths to rehabilitate and release him back into the wild. Unfortunately, he returned looking for food near the original rescue site. It was decided he needed a permanent home, and Southwest Wildlife offered him a home for life at our sanctuary.
Heavenly has blossomed into a mild mannered, gentle giant. He enjoys greeting tour visitors and watching the daily happenings while relaxing in his hammock or soaking in the pool. Always anticipating his turn in the “bear playground,” Heavenly loves searching for a variety of hidden treats before retiring for an afternoon nap.
Recently, Heavenly was placed in our training program for animals using positive reinforcement to achieve certain behaviors. The first order of business was to find a yummy and enticing reward for our training sessions. Heavenly chose berry pie filling as the gold standard of bear treats.
Heavenly quickly caught on to basic behaviors such as target, sit, down, up, paw up/paw down and would show up to training sessions eager to show how smart he was. We built a trusting relationship and laid the foundation for more complex behaviors. Because the bears could benefit from routine bloodwork, we worked on teaching Heavenly behaviors so blood could be drawn without sedating him.
After some research, a blood draw sleeve was fashioned out of a large and sturdy PVC pipe and attached to a fence panel in back of his enclosure. Heavenly began to investigate the PVC pipe with his front paw almost immediately. We continued to reward and shape the desired behaviors and in no time, Heavenly sat nicely with his forearm in the blood draw sleeve waiting for his next spoonful of pie filling.
From there, we slowly worked our way from different touches all the way to a needle poke. Heavenly now allows us to shave his forearm, clean the area with alcohol, feel around for a vein, and pierce his skin with the needle. Although we’ve yet to draw blood from him, we’re confident it will happen in time. Heavenly has been a wonderful partner through all of it and has taught me so much about training…and what it’s like to be a bear.
Southwest Wildlife Conservation Center is located in Scottsdale at 27026 N. 156th St.
Kim Carr is animal care manager at the Valley's Southwest Wildlife Conservation Center.