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Bear sanctuary working through staffing crisis

Lack of workers, interns prompt limited hours

David Colburn
Posted 6/29/22

ORR- Former Vince Shute Wildlife Sanctuary Executive Director Steph Horner said ‘so long’ to the popular black bear attraction at the end of last year’s season, but she never could …

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Bear sanctuary working through staffing crisis

Lack of workers, interns prompt limited hours


ORR- Former Vince Shute Wildlife Sanctuary Executive Director Steph Horner said ‘so long’ to the popular black bear attraction at the end of last year’s season, but she never could say goodbye to the organization or the animals she deeply loves.
To make sure the transition to new leadership went well, Horner decided to take a job at a nearby resort this summer to be available to help out if needed.
“When I left, I said, ‘Look, if things get rough, I’m just a call away,’” Horner said. “I’m committed to this other job, but if things get bad, I will drop everything, and we’ll come.”
Things did indeed get bad, as the new director suddenly flew the coop after a delayed season-opening weekend, Horner found herself back at Vince Shute full-time, smack dab in the middle of a staffing crisis that initially shut down the sanctuary to the public. They reopened for one day, Saturday, last weekend, and will be open again both Saturday and Sunday over Fourth of July weekend from 5-8 p.m.
And after that? Check their website or Facebook page frequently if you want to visit, because Horner is still deeply entrenched in trying to figure out how to salvage as much of the summer schedule as possible.
In past summers, the sanctuary and visitor center on the highway into Orr was staffed by four paid positions and between 10-15 interns who received a small stipend in exchange for their labor and the chance of a lifetime.
When they opened on Saturday, Vince Shute Wildlife Sanctuary had just two paid personnel and two interns, and some volunteers Horner had rounded up.
“Typically, we have about 20 people,” Horner said. “In the last three or four days I sent out an SOS to past interns, past bosses, volunteers, past board members, and the community and people are really stepping up. Tonight, there are nine of us.”
Horner said she’s also found people for the other two paid positions.
The staffing issues, Horner believes, are likely a sign of the times.
“Everybody is hiring and offering sign-on bonuses, and people are paying more, so that’s made it really difficult to get people here,” she said. “The internships here are unpaid, it’s just a small stipend, so that makes it hard, so we are just short.”
Bears are fine
And as for the bears, well, they’ve been oblivious to the sanctuary’s HR problems. Like every year since Vince Shute first started feeding them, the bears’ only concern is getting fat and happy, and they’ve been doing both.
“I’ve already gotten calls from people, ‘Are you not going to be feeding the bears?’ The bears are going to be fed no matter what. They’re going to be fed the entire season and they’re going to be fed the same amount,” Horner said. “The reason why we’re closing to the public is so we can do that properly, because we have to do it with a certain amount of people. But I want to make it clear that (feeding the bears) is not going to be a concern.”
Open season at the sanctuary has also been perhaps the best time for receiving donations of money and food for the bears. People shouldn’t be concerned about the food situation because they see Horner requesting such donations in the midst of the staffing problems because that’s just business as usual as it has been in the past.
“We’re asking in all our communications for dried fruits, nuts, seed, apples and watermelon, and we don’t want anything else,” Horner said. “That’s specifically what we feed. Or people can just make (monetary) donations that can be put toward bear food.”
What is a concern is the potential loss of revenue from the general public from only being open a limited number of days and finding an answer for that also falls to Horner as the new president of the board of the American Bear Association, the sanctuary’s governing board. There’s been no time with all of the fires Horner’s been putting out for her to take a deep dive into the financials yet, but her goal is to limit any losses by finding a way to return to their regular schedule of open days.
“It’s still early in the season. I have high hopes that maybe by mid-July we’ll have a full team again and we’ll be back to our normal hours,” Horner said. “I mean, I’ve got to be hopeful, you know.”
It’s a tall task, but one Horner hopes to accomplish with the help of even more volunteers.
“We have the best volunteers, people that come from all over the country, year after year, typically a lot of retired people,” Horner said. “I’m looking for people now who have extended periods of time, like retired people who may have a month or more. I have a lot of people that are going to come a week here, a week there, and we’re going to be kind of crazy with that. I’m looking for people who can stay a little longer.”
The visitor center in Orr will remain closed this summer, Horner said, but there’s still plenty of merchandise available at the gift shop on the viewing platform. There was a constant steady line of people at the shop’s cash register from right after the first bus pulled up to the platform on Saturday until the next to last bus drove away at 7:45 p.m., just 15 minutes before the end of the viewing session.
Horner left the sanctuary last year with the idea that life would be taking her and her husband, Ryan, in a new direction. Ryan’s nearby, working for the same resort Steph was before she came back to Vince Shute. And it looks like that change in direction turned out to be a circle, because it appears the Horners just can’t bear to leave.
“Ryan’s staying with the resort because I had to step away, but I think he’s going to be part of the team again next year,” Horner said. “I’m not going anywhere. They voted me in as president, so I’m not going anywhere for a while. We love it up here. We’re not going anywhere. We just need to find a house now.”
And while that news won’t make the bears fat, it may well make them very, very happy.
Check the website at or the Vince Shute Wildlife Sanctuary page on Facebook for the latest updates on what days the sanctuary will be open or to find out how to donate food or money to the sanctuary. Or call 218-757-0172 to listen to the recording and/or to leave a message.


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