Ep67 Jay Pratte in remembrance of Else Poulsen, positive reinforcement training and Borscht the bear

This podcast is dedicated to Else Poulsen (1955 to 2016)

“Bears just do things for Bear reasons”

Jay Pratte is the Director of Animal Care, Conservation and Education at the Utica Zoo in the state of New York, USA.

Jay shares with us how his interest in animal behaviour initiated in Waterton Park whilst on a high school camping trip. While exploring the environment, Jay walked upon a doe. He approached her slowly with grass, observing her body language and adjusting himself to reduce the chance of her running. Although his father found it confusing, Jay thought this way of behaving was normal and thus carried it with him with his training.

Jays’ family expected him to be a lawyer due to his high grades. Consequently, he studied environmental law at Alberta University. He explained that by chance a friend told him about big cats which were housed outside the city in a roadside zoo, whereby Jay proceeded to volunteer there, shortly followed by employment. During his employment, he further observed that human behaviours cause animals to adjust their behaviours accordingly. As such, Jay changed his studies to behavioural psychology and zoology. From this Jay trained animals for the film industry, then moved to Dallas Zoo working in the ExxonMobil Tiger habitat managing their training programmes. What Jay learnt here, he transferred to his job working with Giant Pandas at Zoo Atlanta, China.

Jay talks about his current effort in shutting down facilities with poor animal welfare alongside groups such as USDA, PETA and HSUS. This starts with a request to change but frequently ends with litigation. Jay references a couple of facilities in which he helped shut down including Wildlife in Need after observations of bear cub abuse.

Jay explained how he entered the zoo world. He described how initially he thought being a vet was the only option. However, following a shadow day at a vet whilst in high school, he determined experiencing the emotional pain of euthanising animals was not a viable career choice for him. Yet, volunteering at the roadside zoo enlightened him on other possibilities. Jay highlights this as a career choice of passion, with not much money. He recommends volunteering to discover if certain careers are for you.

Jay explains his role at Utica Zoo makes him feel valued and make an impact in the lives of both humans and animals by taking the zoo to the next step. Additionally, he appreciates the zoo's position within the local community and how valued it is, in return, Jay helped the local community through many activities including helping students.

Jay then described how he and Else Polsen met at Zoo Atlantica, however, when he moved on, they lost contact. A few years later Else reached out, asking for Jay to do a training session at her conference. During which, they discussed an idea, developing a non-profit group to protect bears and improve their welfare- this is the birth of the Bear Care Group.

Jay remembers Else, describing her as a mentor, good friend and crucial member of the team. He depicted her as a force to be reckoned with. Else was known to help anyway, no matter what their background or situation is, if they wanted to help the bears, she was there. It was this that taught Jay to be open in his work to promote positive change. Jay and Sabrina then discuss the importance of a complementary team, which each bring their skillset and perspectives to reduce confirmation bias and promote change. He described learning so much from her, however, their time was cut short when Else got cancer and passed away. Jay continues to run the Bear Care Group in the way Else would. Jay highlighted how people can support the group, whether it’s a donation, interacting with the social media page or attending a talk. If you want to help bears, any input is critical.

Jay concludes by quoting “Oh, you made contact!” a line spoken by Jamie Lee Curtis in a movie called Fierce Creatures. Jay says that line makes him think of connection, it is this connection that keeps his passion going. Jay then reminisces about a training session he did at Romania Zoo, whereby he trained a previously untrained Brown bear he nicknamed “Borscht”. Jay said that the fact that Borscht came out of hiding, taught to target, open his mouth on command and stand up fully, all within half an hour, thus demonstrating the power of positive reinforcement.

Learn about the Bear Care Group HERE

Learn more about you could support the Bear Care Group HERE

Find out more about Jay Pratte HERE

Learn more about Else Poulsen HERE

Listen on your favourite player or directly HERE

Become a member of PAWS HERE


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