By BRENNA GRITEMAN
Lindsey Shafer describes her job as part janitor, part chef and part educator.
With a dash of bear breeder thrown in.
The 2008 McComb High School graduate is a member of the Sun Bear Forest Team at the San Diego Zoo, where she helps care for grizzlies, Andean and sun bears — and an African clawless otter. (“She acts just like a little bear,” Shafer says of the otter, who is just as messy and destructive as her carnivorous counterparts.) Sloth bears will be joining the lineup soon.
She and her team were featured in a recent episode of “The Zoo,” an Animal Planet show that follows zookeepers and trainers, as they prepared Andean bears for breeding season.
Not much is known about the breeding cycle and birth window of Andean bears, also known as spectacled bears due to the rings of light-colored fur around their eyes, says Shafer. She notes that Andean bears are “delayed implanters,” meaning that an embryo does not immediately implant in a bear’s uterus, but is maintained in a state of dormancy.
The bear pair the team mated from May to June is still being monitored for pregnancy, with the female gladly displaying an “up” behavior — showing off her belly for ultrasound purposes — in exchange for a reward of peanut butter and avocado.
Shafer says that an entire team at the San Diego Zoo studied panda breeding, and intends to transfer the genetic takeaways from that project to the Andean bear program.
In the meantime, the zoo has learned that its female has absolutely no interest in even a casual relationship with the male bear when she is not in estrus.
“Our female, she is one of the sassiest bears I’ve ever met in my life,” Shafer says.
Learning about individual bear personalities is one of the many perks of Shafer’s job, and she says each of the bears has a different demeanor — just like a cat or dog. Grizzlies, in general, tend to embrace educational opportunities and are fairly easily trained to sit and open their mouths on command.
“They love training, they love learning new things. You can see it on their face,” Shafer says.
Shafer graduated from Michigan State University, whose zoology program required several internships. She interned first at Jenkinson’s Aquarium in New Jersey, then moved to the Birmingham Zoo in Alabama, where she was introduced to work involving carnivores. She was hired at the Alabama zoo soon after graduation, where she remained for about four years.
She started at the San Diego Zoo in December 2015, home to 3,700 animals and one of the top-ranked zoos in the country.
Though an unusual and often exciting job, she says a normal day involves “a lot of cleaning.” This particular brand of cleaning involves messes created by bears weighing anywhere from 150 to 600 pounds.
Shafer is also responsible for feeding the bears and monitoring their overall health and diets. Grizzlies are omnivores and love meat along with fruit and lettuce, while Andean bears prefer lots of fruits, vegetables and fishes.
Zookeepers never share space with the bears — they are dangerous carnivores, after all — but Shafer says there is a healthy, mutual respect between the bears and their caretakers. The bears understand that the zookeepers are the ones providing food, attention and enrichment activities, and respond positively.
And while zoos of the 1940s and ’50s might have been dominated by cages, metal bars and concrete floors, today’s zoos are research-forward, nurturing environments. In modern times, Shafer says, animals are not taken from the wild unless they are injured or need rehabilitation.
Shafer adds that there are animal species that future generations won’t see outside of zoos and picture books, and she hopes that visits to zoos will help inspire people to make a difference in their everyday lives to help protect the wild.
She’s proud of her work, and as a native of a small town, encourages local students to dream big. (Shafer is in Scotland this week for an international bear conference.)
She also implores people of all ages to visit and enjoy their local zoos and to learn as much as possible about the animals housed within.
“There is nothing more exciting in my day than to see a kid’s face light up when they see my bears,” she says.