PULLMAN, Wash. – Heidi Keen, 32, a Washington State University doctoral student who was passionate about enriching the lives of animals in captivity, passed away on Friday, Aug. 9, after a brief illness.
A Palouse, Wash., resident and student in the animal sciences department in the College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences, Keen focused her doctoral studies at the WSU Bear Center, which she chose based on its mission to provide research, information and understanding to conserve bear populations worldwide.
She contributed to the field of zoology by designing activities that revealed the thought processes and emotions of the center’s bears.
“For the past three years, she was really the face of the bear research center,” said center director Charlie Robbins. “She trained the bears to come to the fence where she would display a specific color of placard, and they would respond accordingly.”
Visitors who were able to witness Keen’s research saw the bears either reach for the colored card or touch the tip of their noses, depending on individual training and the reward for a correct response. Through this work, she wanted to learn about what makes a bear happy so that more enriched environments could be created for them.
“Heidi was not the average graduate student,” Robbins said. “She was very mature and focused and just loved working with bears.”
“Heidi was on the cusp of earning her Ph.D. degree with a defense date set in October,” said Kris Johnson, professor in the Department of Animal Sciences. “As a professional in the field of animal behavior she was ready to accomplish great things with her drive to make a difference. We are committed to making certain her work is published and available.
“Heidi’s death is a stunning reminder of how short life can be and how much we need to live it to the fullest. Heidi did that,” Johnson continued. “She was not only an excellent scholar but a musician, triathlete and birdwatcher while being engaged in the Palouse community.
“She recently completed the Seattle to Vancouver bike ride,” Johnson said. “Her zest for life was contagious, and the large number of people whose lives she touched is amazing. Her death will leave a big void for many.”
Keen earned a B.S. degree from Berry College in Georgia and a master’s in animal science from Texas A&M. Previous work experience included animal training at the Phoenix Zoo.
A celebration of her life will be at 7 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 15, at Paradise Creek Brewery in Pullman. Proceeds from the day’s business at the brewery will benefit research to enrich the lives of animals.
A benefit fund in Keen’s name has been set up at AmericanWest Bank, Palouse Branch. Donations will be used to promote animal research.