Baylor bear to get retirement home off campus as school pursues new cubs
Lady, the only living Baylor University mascot, may soon move into a retirement home.
Her age of almost 21 puts her in a similar camp as a human pushing 90 years old, and Baylor wants her spending her golden years in style: napping, eating a well-balanced diet, receiving great medical care and climbing when the mood strikes her .
Frankly, that is the life she leads now at the Bill and Eva Williams Bear Habitat just off South Fifth Street on campus. A visitor early Wednesday afternoon would have witnessed Joy in full nap mode, lying on grass, direct sun slowly giving way to lengthening shadows, Waco Creek gurgling nearby.
Slowly, her big head roused, and she seemingly sneaked a peek at her surroundings, including the student standing behind the wrought-iron railing.
“Oh, yeah, between noon and 4 o’clock, she’s chilling,” the fan said.
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Lady lost her sister, Joy, in July last year. Both joined the Baylor family in the early 2000s, transported to Waco from Oregon. Lady turns 21 later this month, and although she is getting long in the tooth and has undergone surgeries, she remains in good health, said Matt Burchett, Baylor’s senior director of student activities, which oversees the bear habitat.
Although Lady’s health is not a factor, there will come a time when Baylor needs to escort her into retirement, Burchett said. The school has a place in mind, a venue Lady well knows, a rural site where Lady decompresses when noisy campus activities threaten her peace and quiet.
It is there Baylor will build a miniaturized version of its on-campus habitat. Baylor is not commenting on its specific location for reasons that include security, and the site will not be open to the public. Mazanec Construction has secured a building permit.
Burchett said Baylor has no plans to rush Lady into her retirement home, but wants to have that option when Lady faces the inevitable when the need arises. Baylor also has announced it wants two black bear cubs to succeed Lady and Joy as active mascots. They will need a place to stretch their legs, and the home away from home would serve that purpose, Burchett said.
Joy and Lady, full names Judge Joy Reynolds and Judge Sue “Lady” Sloan, were the first mascots to live in the Bill and Eva Williams Bear Habitat, a $1 million facility that replaced an austere enclosure that received the unflattering nickname “the bear pit .” The Tribune-Herald reported in 2002 the Illinois-based animal rights group Showing Animals Respect and Kindness held protests in downtown Waco to criticize the enclosure.
Baylor opened the new habitat in 2005, the stone-and-stucco venue boasting a waterfall, stream and hideaways for relaxing. More recently, the school has installed signs addressing the exhibit’s history and its significance to the university, while also answering questions about the black bear’s preferred activities, eating habits and health challenges, Burchett said.
Baylor has had live bear mascots since a soldier from Waco’s Camp MacArthur donated a pet bear, Bruin, in 1917. Fans of a certain age may remember when Baylor mascots prowled the sidelines and end zones, sometimes getting into staring contests with the University of Texas ‘ longhorn.
Burchett said that tradition is not coming back, as bears react poorly to roaring crowds, fireworks, bands and other trappings of sporting events.
Baylor’s website devoted to the bears’ habitat says about 250,000 people annually visit the place located between the Baylor Bookstore and the Bill Daniel Student Center. Many may show up during off hours, when student caregivers or others are not around to lead tours or answer questions.
Baylor launched a fundraising campaign to cover remodeling costs, and Burchett said work should begin in the spring. Features will include an arched entrance off South Fifth Street, new benches serving the presentation pavilion, a repeating video that tells the story of the bears and their habitat, an exhibit honoring bears that have served as mascots and a reworking of the seating and gathering areas along Waco Creek.
Crews also will add cub-proofing to the shelter, since said cubs can squeeze through barriers that adult bears cannot, Burchett said. For a time, cubs alone will call the habitat home. Burchett said Baylor has help from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums in finding cubs needing a place to stay.
Baylor’s habitat in summer 2021 received accreditation from the association, becoming the first university-owned facility to do so. The Baylor Chamber of Commerce manages the team of students and professionals who care for the bears and maintain their habitat, the Tribune-Herald reported.
Work on both the existing habitat and the remote location will begin this spring, Burchett said. He did not get specific about expenditures. A rundown on Baylor University’s website details projects that a habitat fundraising campaign would address. They total $1 million in projected costs.