By Jenny Gregory
CLEVELAND — While most students spent their summer relaxing and resting their minds, biology major Elise Lombard spent three months encountering wild black bears at the North American Bear Center (NABC) in Ely, MN.
After being selected for the internship, Lombard packed her bags and headed to northeast Minnesota, where she worked from May until August at the non-profit center. The mission of the NABC is to maintain long-term survival of bears worldwide by replacing misconceptions with scientific facts about bears, their role in ecosystems, and their relations with humans.
After arriving at the center, the biology major dove headfirst into the many duties associated with the internship. “Being an intern at the NABC,” she said, “they give you all the responsibility of environmental education and animal caretaking.” Daily tasks included directing tours, taking part in worldwide broadcasts, and maintenance of reptile and amphibian exhibits.
As part of her conservation responsibilities, she and other interns were responsible for feeding, moving, and cleaning the bears. “We needed to bond with them,” she explained, “so they learned to trust us.”
While wild bears tend to be perceived as hostile creatures, Lombard explained that the “black bears are actually very gentle animals, contrary to popular belief.”
“Regardless,” she clarified, “while working at the center, safety procedures were always in place. We always worked in pairs, kept ‘pouch food’ – treats on hand – and double-checked every fence and gate.
“The safety procedures put in place were for the bears, not us,” she added. “We didn’t have a trainer working with us, but a bear curator, Sharon, who has worked with them for ten years. She showed us the ropes and then observed us for a few weeks until we learned each bear’s personality.”
Interns understood that these wild bears were unpredictable. “For example,” she said, “males are separated due to dominance. And if one bear doesn’t want to cooperate that day, you have to improvise the best solution for the other bears.”
Lombard and the other interns helped with daily chores and educated visitors about the importance of bear preservation.
With eight bear species around the world listed as vulnerable, threatened, or endangered, the bear center associates work to conserve bear habitats, rehabilitate injured and orphaned bears back to the wild, and implement methods to reduce conflict between humans and bears.
Opening doors for the future
Lombard’s experience allowed her “to become more comfortable speaking in front of crowds, take on leadership roles, and learn awareness for animal behavior and how to interpret it.”
As Lombard completes her senior year at TMU and prepares for her future, she considers the North American Bear Center as a possible career opportunity.
“While I enjoyed the environmental education aspect,” Lombard concluded, “I also realize that I absolutely love working outside with these animals, taking care of them and learning animal behavior.”
Jenny Gregory is the content manager for Truett McConnell University.