Jan 24

Congratulations, Jay Pratte: Advancing Bear Care Conference

Welcome to our new blog series highlighting the recipients of Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium Director’s Award, which honors exceptional talent, leadership and performance. This year, eight individuals received the award, based on projects they completed in 2016 that were broad in scope, complex and had a notable positive impact on zoo operations and/or the guest experience; or showed significant costs savings or added tangible value to a process or park operation or animal husbandry in general.

Today, we’ll hear from Jay Pratte, behavioral husbandry and welfare manager, who was recognized for overseeing the Advancing Bear Care 2016 conference, which was held at the zoo October 6-9, 2016.

OZF: What was the idea behind the Advancing Bear Care conference?

JP: I am one of the founding directors of an international organization called The Bear Care Group, which was founded by the late Else Poulsen, who dedicated her life to improving the lives of bears in captivity. Our mandate is to focus on husbandry and care for any bear in the world that’s under human care, whether it’s an accredited zoo, a sanctuary, a circus, or another organization. We've been holding conferences and workshops since 2007 to create and enhance communication, cooperation and education among international bear care professionals to further global bear welfare and conservation efforts. Other conferences have been in Banff, Canada, Romania, Vietnam, etc. This was the first one in Omaha, and it was held here at the zoo. We also went out in buses to the Wildlife Safari Park, to be with bears in their natural habitat.

OZF: Who attended, and what topics were covered?

JP: We had bear caregivers from around the world, as well as people from OSHA, PETA and the U.S.D.A. Our keynote speaker was Dr. Jill Robinson, MBE, the founder and CEO of Animals Asia, who has been instrumental in the fight against bear bile farming in China. Delcianna J. Winders, who is the academic fellow of the Harvard Animal Law & Policy Program was here, as was Emily McCormack, from Turpentine Creek, a world-renowned wildlife refuge in Arkansas. One of our most popular sessions was on improving minimum standards from an inspection point of view. A USDA inspector who was here went to their next inspection and generated a 13-page report, one of the most detailed USDA reports ever written, incorporating things they learned at the conference regarding husbandry, behavior, welfare, seasonal needs and diet. It was such a great exchange of ideas that will help everyone do better at our jobs. For example, traditionally, you don't put male polar bears together, but we learned that if you give them a choice of where they want to be and who they want to be with, it can work out great.

OZF: What kind of support did the conference receive from the zoo and the community?

JP: Dennis Pate and all the keepers and staff at the zoo pitched in and were all very involved. They made this an institution-wide process, and it really showed. The local chapter of the American Association of Zookeepers (AAZK) contributed and were helpful. International organizations provided support. And, of course, the Omaha Zoo Foundation provided sponsorship. The Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce helped with links and activity ideas around the city, and I can’t speak highly enough of Mandy Vanderloo at the Doubletree Hotel. It was a four-day conference with a lot of social events, and she made it all run seamlessly. Several businesses, including Mangelsen Images of Nature Gallery in the Old Market, donated to our silent auction. We are so grateful to the entire community for giving our guests such a warm welcome.

OZF: How would you like to see bear care at our zoo evolve in the coming years?

JP: After the conference, our lead keeper took on the role of enrichment manager, and is working to provide our bears with a more complex environment inside and outside. We're working to improve our recognition of seasonal variations and needs, both at the zoo and at the safari park, where we have two black bears. We've instituted a training program for bears that includes voluntarily immobilizations so we can look at their teeth and draw blood from a paw when necessary. We're constantly building our relationships with the animals. Our exhibits here are older, and they pose some very specific challenges because of the buildings. In the future, we're working to house our bears in more progressive, more naturalistic and more advanced environments that are tailored to their specific needs.