Only A Pit Stop

October 13, 2003

In early fall, Baylor began planning a fund-raising campaign for a major renovation/expansion of the Steve Hudson Memorial Bear Plaza. 
The $850,000 project will increase the size of the current plaza to include more trees, grass and water features, said Dr. Richard Scott, vice president for university development. Describing it as a grassroots campaign, Dr. Scott said all who care about Baylor's bear tradition can participate. "We hope to get three to four larger gifts and many smaller ones," he said. 
The current bear plaza, built in 1976, is designated as a Class C specialty zoo and educational exhibit. Licensed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Texas Parks and Wildlife to hold up to three bears, the facility currently houses two female bears -- Joy and Lady, almost 2 and 3 years old, respectively. 
In 1999, members of the Baylor Chamber of Commerce submitted a proposal for enhancing the bear facility, said Larry D. Brumley, acting vice president for university relations. At the time, he said, the University already had slated a number of construction priorities that directly impact students' living and learning environments. With many of them completed or near completion, the focus can shift to renovating the plaza, he said. 
Chamber members are working with Jim Fleshman, director of Waco's Cameron Park Zoo, on the project. A Fellow with the American Zoological Association, Fleshman is an invaluable resource for information about standards maintained in the nation's top zoos, Brumley said. "We've had conversations with him these past few months and will continue involving him." 
Brumley said he expects the fund-raising campaign and architectural plans to develop simultaneously. 
Adam Ylitalo, bear trainer and senior from Longview, Texas, said he is looking forward to seeing how the plaza can be transformed. "I'm very excited about the chance to build something that is world-class, something that could be one of the best exhibits in the nation."
Last year, members of an Illinois-based animal rights group protested Baylor's practice of keeping live bears as mascots, a waning trend among universities. The overwhelming majority of Baylor's constituents, however, want to continue to have live mascots, Brumley said. "In the end, we decided that we wanted a bear facility on campus, where alumni could come and bring their children." 
This fall, the Chamber of Commerce's bear mascot program was placed under the direction of Dr. Eileen Hulme, vice president for student life, who is working with the group to enhance the bears' overall quality of life. One policy change was to not take the bears to home football games, where they often faced "thousands of screaming fans," she said. "Watching the bear was part of the family entertainment, but I think people in the Baylor family care more about the bears than just watching them do tricks," she said. 
With an improved habitat, Baylor hopes to keep its bears through their natural lifetimes, Brumley said. "It's been increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to find an acceptable way to retire our bears. We have an obligation to make sure we take care of those bears throughout their natural lives." 
Dr. Hulme agreed. "It's time for Baylor to move to a higher level of taking care of their bears through the facilities," she said. "The Chamber can only work with the facilities they're given, and now it's the University's responsibility to step up to the plate."