Sure it holds trash, but can it pass the grizzly test?

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WEST YELLOWSTONE, Mont. — If a manufacturer wants to put a container on the market that's supposed to be bear-proof — or "bear-resistant" — how can it be tested to make sure it works?

The best way, of course, would be to let a few hungry grizzly bears take a crack at it.

And that's exactly what goes on regularly just outside Yellowstone National Park.

"Our bears test between 40 and 80 products a year," said Randy Gravatt, facilities manager of the Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center.

Manufacturers regularly bring trash cans and other containers to the nonprofit center to see if they can outsmart a group of feisty but entirely captive grizzlies.

Tourists visit the center to enjoy the beauty of wolves and bears on display as they live, eat and play in large enclosures. The luckiest tourists are those who show up on a day when there's an epic battle between trash cans and the heavyweight champions. The bears weigh up to a ton and have some wicked natural hardware — teeth and claws — to use as can openers.

"A lot of the folks," Gravatt said, "they don't realize how smart and how strong a bear is."

Normally the bears do their testing in warmer months. But recently the bears put on a display especially for tourists and a visiting news team.

Grant vs. garbage can

A big grizzly named Grant started the show with an aggressive opening gambit, sideswiping a sealed trash can and knocking it over. Grant, named for President Ulysses S. Grant who signed the bill that made Yellowstone the first national park, followed up with a typical grizzly bear strategy — he picked up the trash can and dropped it.

"They toss it up in the air, juggling it," said Gravatt, who has watched many such ursine tussles. "They maybe even toss it up in the air so it falls down and hits a rock and maybe breaks open. Very, very smart."

Why do the grizzlies bother trying to open the seemingly impregnable containers? It's because the trash can is preloaded with a reward, something tasty and tempting.

"That food reward is gonna be peanut butter," Gravatt said. "It's gonna be fish, it's gonna be a hunk of meat. Could be jelly. You know, all their favorites."

Grizzly bear Grant tries to get into a trash can at the Grizzly & Wolf Discovery in West Yellowstone, Montana, on Jan. 17, 2017. (Photo: Thomas Hollenhorst, KSL TV)
Grizzly bear Grant tries to get into a trash can at the Grizzly & Wolf Discovery in West Yellowstone, Montana, on Jan. 17, 2017. (Photo: Thomas Hollenhorst, KSL TV)

In desperation, Grant performed the end-over-end maneuver with the trash can and followed it up with the roll-it-over-a-few times method. And then he did what bears are famous for: He ripped at it with his claws. When even that didn't work, he gave it a bear hug, and then dropped it like a bad habit.

"Come on, Grant!" a tourist yelled.

Gravatt picked up the play-by-play.

"Well he's checking out his options," Gravatt observed. "It looked like he had opened the lid just a little bit, so that's going to entice him to get in that much more. He's smelling that food in there."

Then it became a two-bear effort; Grant was joined by another bear that seemed eager to help.

"I think they're hungry because they haven't really eaten today, I think," speculated Sam Nelson, a preteen tourist from White Mills, Kentucky.

Actually, the discovery center feeds the bears regularly. They're so well-fed they don't hibernate for the winter as bears in the wild do to conserve energy.

Although one of the bears managed to rough up a GoPro camera that had been positioned near the trash can, it was not Grant's day. The lid on the can resisted all of his tactics. The trash can remained unopened and the food reward remained uneaten.

"I mean he was trying to figure it out, you know, how to open the trash can," said Ricki Nelson of White Mills, Kentucky. "You know, he was looking at all the angles."

Preston Meredith, also of White Mills, expressed some admiration for the bears. "Smart," he said, "except the part where they destroyed the camera."

Even when the grizzlies totally fail and don't get the food out of the container, that doesn't mean the trash can passed the test. The rule of the testing is that the container has to survive the attack in some kind of usable condition. The trash can that was bear-hugged by Grant ended up so severely scrunched it appeared to be unusable.

Sam vs. cooler

For the second round of the day, it was bear versus beer cooler, and a thousand-pound Alaskan grizzly named Sam came out on top.

One of Sam's specialties is a move known locally as "the CPR method." He stood with his hind legs on the ground and leaned into the beer cooler with his front legs positioned on top. Several times in quick succession, he forced all of his weight down on the cooler, just as if he was performing CPR. It's possible that weakened the cooler because it turned the tide in Sam's favor.

He really started getting his teeth into it, and then it wasn't long before the cooler started to disintegrate. In a world of tooth and claw, it's clear that Sam has what it takes.

Alaskan grizzly bear Sam tries to get inside a beer cooler at the Grizzly & Wolf Discovery in West Yellowstone, Montana, on Jan. 17, 2017. (Photo: Thomas Hollenhorst, KSL TV)
Alaskan grizzly bear Sam tries to get inside a beer cooler at the Grizzly & Wolf Discovery in West Yellowstone, Montana, on Jan. 17, 2017. (Photo: Thomas Hollenhorst, KSL TV)

As the cooler made a loud popping noise, an audience of tourists started to applaud and someone yelled out, "Good job, Sam!"

Sam's success is the opposite of the long-term testing trend; over the years, an increasing proportion of the containers survive. About 60 percent of the containers now get a passing grade on the grizzly test. That suggests two possibilities: either the bears are giving up more easily in boredom and frustration, or the containers are getting better.

AJ Chlebnik, the discovery center's curator of education, believes it's the latter.

"Experience," Chlebnik said. "The manufacturers are learning through what's worked in the past and learning from what other companies are doing. That would be my guess."

Officials at the discovery center say the testing actually benefits bears in the wild by helping to keep them out of trouble. One of the biggest threats wild bears face is that for safety reasons, wildlife officials typically kill or capture bears that become habituated to stealing food from humans.

"If we have more bear-resistant containers out there," Gravatt said, "we're going to have less conflicts."

The bears at the discovery center were born in the wild. They got into trouble taking food from humans so they were put in captivity — rescued — before something deadly happened.


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