A Day in the Life of a Bear Handler
by Diane Dragotto Williams, Curator
Nancy Anderson needs to be physically fit enough to haul heavy bags of bear feces; rake up and clean weathering areas; hose down bear dens; disinfect concrete floors of Mc Beth Bear Facility; and prep food like a chef for four adult California Black Bears! And that's just the middle of her day!
A thirteen year breast cancer survivor, and now at 67 years of age, Nancy lives a very active and fulfilling life. Her past experience as a tennis instructor for over 8 years at Griffith Park, Los Angeles, and her 10 years as a private investigator for Workman's Compensation Claims, has molded her into a tough, resilient, adventurous bear handler!
When Nancy, and the other bear handlers, enter what Nancy lovingly calls "Bearland", they must search for anything new that needs repairing or changing, from the bear platforms and pools that the bears use for enrichment, to their dens and gates that must be checked, rechecked and checked again! Nancy makes a habit every year of gathering acorns, willow branches, and oak leaves for the bears to den up with for semi-hibernation.
Before her arrival at Wildhaven Ranch, Nancy readies herself with layers of protective clothing and boots, gloves, belts, bear spray, pouches, and training treats. What surprises that greet her in winter may be frozen bear pools, or broken outside pipes, spraying water in every direction, and flooding the bear kitchen. And many a year, Nancy has shoveled off den roofs of snow! In the summer, her challenges are to climb the roof of enclosures to put up shade cloth for shelter from the sun, or hiding enrichment stimuli like scents, or foods in the weathering areas to engage bears in exercise, or making ice bricks filled with fruit for bears' playtime in the pools.
Spring welcomes budding plants and sleepy-eyed bears waking up from a light hibernation. Almost frolicking, running with renewed bursts of energy, and snarls, and huffs at each other indicate territorial turf scuffs or food behavior hierarchy.
Every bear is as different as their names, with individual temperaments, and personalities. Nancy has learned to read each bear's behavior and their communication regarding their needs and desires. After over 10 years of helping to raise orphan bear cubs, she has seen Little Bear begin as a 12 pound, emaciated, fur ball at Wildhaven Ranch to grow to a 425 pound marvel of muscles, sinew and bones!
Snickers, Misha, and Bayley also receive her care, and she reflects how important it is to be a "Bear Behavioralist", to develop routines and techniques that help determine each bears' health and attitude. "As bear handlers, we need to respond to constant weather conditions, food supply and seasonal changes, including the length of the day. I am doing what I was meant to do. To have gained the trust of a bear as I have, especially, with Little Bear, is a true privilege and honor".
Nancy and all of us bear handlers have been influenced by the words of Bear Biologist and Author, Stephen Stringham...."Bears have the power to renew your life, to recreate who you are, if only for a moment, and perhaps for a lifetime. This is their gift."
Nancy Anderson is a gift to Wildhaven Ranch that we appreciate. As she leaves her ursidae charges for the day, her message to me, is "All is well in Bearland!"