WSU Bear Center manager heads to New Mexico

New manager worked with bears previously in Montana, hopes to increase research funding, restructure volunteer program



Brandon Evans Hutzenbiler, former WSU Bear Center manager, watches one of the grizzly bears Sunday morning in the WSU Bear Center yard.

EMMA LEDBETTER, Evergreen news editor

Brandon Evans Hutzenbiler spent five years at the WSU Bear Center wearing waterproof work boots and scrub pants while dealing with grizzly-sized messes.

“I would like to know how much poop I’ve carried over the years,” he said.

Hutzenbiler, former center manager, worked his last day with the grizzly bears on Tuesday. He said he is moving to the University of New Mexico to work with cell cultures as a lab manager.

Center manager Heather Keepers started working alongside Hutzenbiler earlier this month to prepare to take over the role. The manager oversees daily operations, including processing cell samples for research, cleaning the facility and working with the bears for enrichment, Keepers said. 

Hutzenbiler designed enrichment programs for the bears, such as scent and food-related activities. They can also be trained with a clicker tool, like dogs, he said.  

Hutzenbiler said watching the bears up close was the best part of his job.

“They’re adorable,” he said. “I have an enormous amount of respect for them.”

Keepers previously worked with both grizzly and black bears at a facility in Kalispell, Montana. Grizzly bears are quite different from black bears because they are easily offended and very emotional. Keepers said if she scolded one of the bears she worked with, it hurt his feelings. 

Keepers said she is excited to interact closely with the bears because they can be silly and like to

Heather Keepers, WSU Bear Center manager, watches grizzly bears John and Frank walk down the paved track in the center’s fenced enclosure on Sunday morning.

move around the yard with flair.

“I like getting to know their personalities,” she said, “not just how they are as a species, but as individuals.”

Bears remind many people of their dogs, which is why they are so lovable, she said. 

Among her many goals as manager, Keepers said she hopes to find more funding sources to support research with the bears and restructure the center’s volunteer program. She also wants to add a water feature to the bears’ yard because they love playing in the water.

Keepers said she can “bearly” contain all of her “embearassing” bear puns now that she is manager. 

Working at the center can be strenuous because it never stops operating. The bears always need to be fed, let out and cleaned, Keepers said.

“[Working here] is a lifestyle,” she said. “It’s a dedication, it’s a commitment.”