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WSU research center under fire for bear deaths

<p>What happens within the walls of the bear research facility at Washington State University is fiercely protected, especially after a controversial report was released in March. </p>

Whitney Ward

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PULLMAN, Wash. – The Washington State University Bear Center is one of the most popular attractions on the Pullman campus. However, the facility has also come under heavy fire because a WSU committee came out and said the building is “inadequate” for the research being done there.

Report details death of two bear cubs

Bear cub at WSU Bear Center

The university has been welcoming people to the center’s fence-line year-round since the Bear Center was founded in 1986. It is the only one of its kind in the U.S. But what happens within the center's walls is much more fiercely protected, especially after a controversial report was released in March. It detailed the death of two, year-old cubs in hibernation. It happened in 2010. They were placed in their hibernation traps in the fall, and the document states, by the time they were removed on January 19th, "their health had deteriorated severely." Center records show they tried to treat them for 24 hours, but "both bears had to be euthanized." Documents show the two were brother and sister. Their names were Chester and Remi. WSU's Provost Committee said it is because bears need to "learn how to hibernate," but some at the center disagree.

“I think there's some research that needs to be done. But we've learned a bit about hibernating bears that are inexperienced. And after the first year when that happened, it was something that was implemented, that a bear that hasn't had experience hibernating, would never go into one of those hibernation chambers again," said Dean of the College of Agricultural, Human & Natural Resource Sciences Dr. Kim Kidwell.

An internal WSU Provost committee recommended multiple changes to the facility, and operations, to keep similar incidents from ever happening again.

KREM 2 on Your Side made a public records request and found an email from Dr. Heiko Jansen, Associate Professor of Neuroscience for the Bear Center. In the email, he called for “several errors in the Provosts’ report to be corrected,” including the call for video cameras in the hibernation traps. He writes they already have continuous video monitoring. In fact, he said, "evidence that the bears were more active than expected" is why the yearlings pulled them out in the first place. Still, no one has ever said exactly why it took so long to notice the bears were not fully hibernating.

Eight bears euthanized in eight years

This also is not the first time a bear has died at the Center unexpectedly. In fact, just eight months after the yearlings died, another young bear was mauled to death by two adult females. At the time, officials called it a tragic reminder that they are working with wild animals.

But sometimes, according to records, the center takes things into its own hands, and euthanizes perfectly healthy animals. According to records from the Bear Center, eight bears have been purposely killed in the last eight years. Sometimes, they are adults and sometimes they are babies. Documents shows all were euthanized, either for research purposes or to control animal population at the center, which is only allowed to have 13 bears at any given time. It is something the Bear Center has tried to keep out of the public eye. An email obtained by KREM 2, from 2011 shows then director, Dr. Charlie Robbins, discussing six newborn cubs with the Assistant Director of Office of the Campus Veterinarian. He wrote, "Please be a little quiet in that currently I am planning to keep four, which means I have to kill two in the next few weeks."

The assistant director agreed, saying, "If someone were to figure out six were born, but then only four appear on display this spring. Questions might be raised and difficult questions might have to be answered."

Bear roams that WSU Bear Center

It is important to note that no one has ever come out and said Dr. Robbins' actions led to the death of the two hibernating yearlings. But he was removed as Bear Center Director in February, pending a full review of operations. Ever since his demotion, countless research colleagues from all around the country have come to his defense. The U.S. Department of the Interior called him a credit to WSU, and said there is no one else working on bears who has more credibility, integrity. The Wildlife Physiologist at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game called Robbins a world-class scientist and brilliant and caring mentor. And a past Ph.D. student said he still carries Dr. Robbins' lessons with him every day.

KREM 2 asked University leaders if Dr. Robbins could be returned to his former position. They said there is no timetable as to when that internal investigation will be complete. For now, his name remains outside the center door, even as a new, interim director has been assigned.

What's next for the bear center?

Perhaps one of the most difficult questions to answer is about the future of the Bear Center as a whole. The committee's report said the building itself is inadequate for the needs of the center, which only amplifies calls for a brand new 20-acre, $20 million, state-of-the-art bear center. The ultimate goal is turn much of the land at the WSU Arboretum into an expanded bear habitat. It would more than triple the current space for grizzlies and make room for a whole new species entirely -- Polar bears.

“The risk of extinction of polar bears is very concerning right now, due to ice cap melting," said Dr. Kidwell.

The new building would be a far cry from the current facility which was built in the mid-60s as a primate lab. Dr. Monica Bando just came to the Bear Center in 2015 to help develop enrichment activities for the grizzlies. She has also taken on the new role of facility manager. It is yet another recommendation from the Provost Committee report in March. She said a new facility, built specifically for full-size bears would make the animals, and staff, exponentially safer. But the impact on research could be even greater.

"The way they're able to sleep for 4-6 months. They don't eat, they don't drink," said Dr. Bando. "They eat a whole bunch of sugary foods, gain a whole bunch of weight. And how on earth are they able to develop this lifestyle? That, for us, would be completely detrimental."

Researchers believe adding polar bears to the mix would only accelerate the potential for new findings.

Bear cub plays in water at WSU Bear Center.

“We have to really balance the health and well-being of the bears to the commitment to research. So, we study bears to save bears. And I think it's really important, when you look down the road, that this research really has mattered in the conservation of bears," said Dr. Kidwell.

Dr. Kidwell said she would like to see the new center up and running in the next three years, but it will all depend on fundraising and public support. Leaders insist they are addressing the issues. They have already changed hibernation policies, and said there are no plans to euthanize any bears over the next five years. In fact, much like the bears themselves coming out of hibernation, the center hope to emerge from this latest controversy, smarter and ready for the next steps.