Heidi Keen was born on July 8, 1981 in Brainerd, Minnesota and moved to Atlanta, GA at a very young age. She grew up loving and interacting with all types of animals. Her childhood dream was to have a “cat farm,” where she could keep and care for cats ranging from pets to Snow Leopards to Siberian Tigers, and to buy her sister her dream horse farm. Heidi earned a B.S. from Berry College in Georgia and an M.S. in Animal Science from Texas A&M. Subsequently, she worked with the ASPCA in Colorado where she helped develop a practice that substantially increased adoptions and diminished the number of animals returned as unsuitable.
She left Colorado to accept a position as an animal trainer at the Phoenix Zoo where she focused on training birds for educational exhibitions. Heidi’s passion was to understand the cognitive processes of animals and use this knowledge to provide more enriching environments and experiences for wildlife in captivity. She always had her eye on obtaining her Ph.D., both because she loved learning and because she knew that credential would be critical to making the kind of impact she wanted to make.
At WSU, Heidi became an integral member of the Bear Center, both in conducting her high-profile research and assisting all other members of the team. Her research focused on developing a new system for evaluating which experiences the bears deemed enriching and enjoyable. Because previous evaluation systems had used both positive and negative reinforcements, Heidi wanted to develop an evaluation system that used only positive, food-based reinforcement. She spent hundreds of hours training and interacting with the bears to understand their responses to standard cues and ultimately different types of enrichment. As such, the highlight of the bears’ day was getting to work with Heidi as she gained insights into how they viewed their world and how she could make their lives more enjoyable.
Heidi died unexpectedly after a short illness on August 9th, 2013 as she was preparing for the last semester of her Ph.D. program. During her illness, many people made generous contributions to assist in what was believed would be a long recovery. The decision was made to use this money to establish an ongoing endowment in Heidi’s memory on behalf of the Bear Center. Heidi was driven, witty, irreverent, bright and gifted on many levels. She was an innovator/instigator who came up with great ideas, and she had a way of bringing out the best in others. She had so much she wanted to accomplish and was excited about tackling the next phase of her life. Heidi’s irrepressible zest for life included roles as a community leader, musician, artist, triathlete, birdwatcher, and conservationist. She gave freely of herself to the people around her and to the many causes she believed in. Heidi was awarded her doctoral degree during the 2014 graduation, and would be proud to know a fund has been established to recognize and further the work she was so passionate about.
The distributions from the endowment will provide one or more graduate fellowships for students focused on understanding bear learning, cognition and behavior.