Sun, Nov. 09, 2003

Fort Worth Star-Telegram

By Troy Phillips

Staff Writer

WACO -- It's a glorious day at Baylor's Bear Plaza. Joy and Lady, Baylor's two American black bear school mascots, couldn't be happier at the moment.

Their tummies are full, the air around them is quiet, and, most important, they're together. Lying side by side and dreaming whatever bears dream at rest, the two sisters appear content. Enough, at least, that Joy has all four legs in the air.

"Everyone," said Adam Ylitalo, a Baylor senior and the school's head bear trainer, "is proud of having them here. Everyone at Baylor wants what's best for them."

Everyone just doesn't agree that Ylitalo's feelings resonate throughout the university.

Joy and Lady, the latest in Baylor's 80-year tradition of keeping live bear mascots on campus and taking them to football games, are among college sports' most controversial critters. About 35-40 schools nationwide incorporate a live animal mascot -- not all at football games. But only 14 mascots nationwide, including Baylor's, are considered non-domesticated or wild.

Since August 2002, Baylor has clashed with an Illinois-based animal rights organization, Showing Animals Respect and Kindness (SHARK), over the school's mascot program.

SHARK has accused Baylor of mismanaging its program, and alleges bears have been abused for decades at Baylor. Though the group now concedes Baylor has improved its level of care dramatically, it's still pushing for upgrades to Joy and Lady's mostly concrete on-campus habitat and an end to bears appearing at football games.

Since 2000, Baylor has been finalizing architectural plans to expand the habitat and is now in the process of raising almost $1 million for the project, said Cathy Pleitz of Baylor's development office. SHARK director Steve Hindi said Thursday that he has received a copy of the habitat's expansion blueprints.

The two sides seemed less at odds until Saturday, when Joy appeared at Baylor's homecoming parade and Lady appeared at a football game. Hindi said Baylor promised to end the practice and is bowing to alumni pressure. Baylor said it promised only to curtail the bears' Saturday appearances.

"The bears are there merely to provide entertainment and a service to the school," Hindi said. "Their well-being is not and has never been Baylor's concern. These are people who pander to folks who will or will not provide them money. That's not leadership."

A link on SHARK's Web site (sharkonline.org) sends visitors to baylorbearabuse.com, which provides details of SHARK's allegations against Baylor. Among SHARK's allegations are:

Past Baylor trainers have kicked or beaten bears that became temperamental.

Because of Baylor's strong ties to Dr Pepper, it fed bears the soft drink for promotional reasons, compromising their health.

Baylor caused psychosis and repetitive disorder in many of its past mascots by lacking the expertise to properly house them or treat their symptoms.

In recent years, Baylor's program has undergone significant changes. Until 1996, Baylor bears were declawed and often fed Dr Pepper and Oreo cookies, Ylitalo and others associated with the program said. In 1982, local TV cameras were at the pit when an adult bear, Judge, attacked and killed a cub named Chuck over a bottle of Dr Pepper.

From that day, Baylor bears were housed separately within the pit until Joy and Lady were allowed contact in November 2002. The pit is licensed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to hold as many as three bears.

Baylor also recently ended a campus tradition of monthly "pit parties," where students gathered at the habitat late at night, played loud music and socialized. The event was designed to raise awareness for the student service group -- the Baylor Chamber of Commerce -- that runs the mascot program, said Baylor vice president of student life Eileen Hulme.

"We ended it," said Hulme, the administrator who oversees the Baylor Chamber of Commerce. "What we know about bear health now as opposed to 20 years ago has come a long way. We concede that our knowledge has grown."

Stacey Johnson, curator of the Texas Wild exhibit at the Fort Worth Zoo, said bears often adapt to noise-related stress, even in captivity.

"It's pretty chaotic here in the summer," Johnson said. "People try to get their attention all the time, and they tune it out. It's like adapting to stress in any environment. They do what they have to do to survive."

Videotape of a pit party and other footage of bears pacing in cages was presented as evidence by SHARK in its campaign against Baylor. As for allegations of physical abuse, Ylitalo said trainers do not kick or hit bears to control them.

Ylitalo, a chemistry major, bottle-fed Joy, 3, and Lady, 2, in his Waco apartment until they were large enough for the pit. Baylor's wild mascot program is the only one nationwide where students, not paid experts or handlers, do all the work. Students feed, clean, exercise, transport, show and play with the bears.

"You'd think it would sound like a disaster waiting to happen," said Texas A&M veterinarian Jim Jenson, the bears' attending physician since 2002. "But I know the quality of the students and the training they go through. In reality, it's one of the finest, strongest student-run operations in existence."

For several weeks each year, the students work with bear trainers from the animal entertainment industry in California. Older student trainers tutor newer ones. Some trainers have been injured, but there is no record of any student being killed while handling mascots.

"Neither of us joined the Chamber to handle bears," said Baylor graduate Tyler Sellers, who trained Ylitalo. "But it's a special opportunity you don't turn down. When people question your integrity and desire for the bears' welfare, it feels like they're calling you a bad parent."

Other schools use mascot programs as extensions of other programs, such as agricultural or pre-veterinary studies. Some mascots live off campus at zoos or with farmers, ranchers or professional handlers. The University of North Alabama has two 11-month-old African lions, Leo III and Una, living in a 12,764-square foot modern habitat on campus. They do not attend games.

"This is not Siegfried and Roy," said Dan Howard, UNA's vice president of advancement. "We'll stack our habitat up against most zoos. This is serious business, and we want to be the standard."

LSU's Bengal tiger, Mike V, lives in an on-campus habitat that will be expanded to 15,000 square feet when the school completes a $2.5 million fund-raising effort.

Baylor's pit, a below-ground multilevel outdoor habitat with two small swimming pools that back up to an above-ground chainlink cage area, will more than double in size, according to Baylor's plans. Trees, grass and more natural areas that '70s-style habitats lacked will be added.

"We found over the years that concrete habitats cause trouble with their feet," Johnson said. "We try to minimize their time on concrete."

ONLINE: www.baylorbears.com

Troy Phillips, (817) 390-7163

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