Care of live bear mascots evolves

By James Stockton and Clint Boehringer
Reporter and contributor

The Baylor Bookworms. The name doesn’t exactly inspire fear, but in 1914 the founders of Baylor were considering making the bookworm the school’s mascot.

The choice of mascot, however, was given to the students and more than half voted for the bear.

“All you have to do is hang out by the habitat any day of the week, and you see how many people come off I-35 just to see the mascots,” said Dr. Martha Lou Scott, associate vice president for student life.

Before Lady and Joy, the current bear mascots, arrived at Baylor, more than 50 bears represented the school. The first bear, named Ted or “Bruin,” came to Baylor in 1917 as a cub. Until 2001, each bear served as mascot for two years before being returned to the wild.

Joy and Lady arrived at Baylor in 2001 and 2002 respectively from West Coast Game Park in Bandon, Ore. Both are North American black bears and are the first bears to live at Baylor while fully grown.

“Baylor has been very lucky to have bears join us from all across the nation,” said Harlingen senior Reece Fitzgerald, one of two trainers who care for the bears on a daily basis.

The fact that the bears spent their time at Baylor as cubs gave those in charge of the mascots, the Baylor Chamber of Commerce, more freedom with the bears’ activities.

“[Our] program is the only student-run exotic mascot program in the United States,” said Amarillo senior Patrick Bell, the other trainer.

Fitzgerald said in the past the trainers took both of the bears on walks around campus, and took Lady to football games.

However, that tradition, and others, have changed in recent years.

In September, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which inspects Baylor annually as part of federal regulations related to the school’s possession of wild animals, ruled that it would not be safe to allow the bears to be unconfined in public.

Chamber members agreed that escorting full-grown bears around campus on a leash wasn’t in the best interest of the bears or the students, so Lady and Joy spend their time in the $1 million habitat on campus.

Other changes were implemented to keep the bears healthy.

“Up until the mid-1990s we did feed our bears Dr Pepper,” Fitzgerald said. “However, that practice was discontinued to help protect our bears’ health.”

Because bears are some of the only animals that suffer tooth decay like humans, the addition of Dr Pepper to an already sugary diet made the Baylor bears more susceptible.

Another change is that Baylor has chosen to keep the bears until they die.

“The Baylor Chamber of Commerce, in conjunction with university officials, have made a commitment to keep the bears for the remainder of their natural lives,” said Bell.

The Bill and Eva Williams Bear Habitat, located by the Bill Daniel Student Center on Fifth Street, was built in 2005 and is classified by the United States Department of Agriculture as a class ‘C’ exhibitor zoo, the same license that all zoos have.

In addition to the habitat, the bears are given everything they need. Their dietary needs are met with a special omnivore food supplemented with various fruits and vegetables and Bell and Fitzgerald train them twice a week.

And while the bears spend most of their time in the habitat, they are occasionally taken out for training and exercise purposes.

Because of the extra care, bears in captivity can live up to five years longer than in the wild. This means Lady and Joy could serve as Baylor’s live mascots for up to 15 more years.

“The major change for us has been the decision to keep the bears for the entirety of their lives,” Scott said.

“It’s a tremendous educational experience for us.”