The Use of Medical Training to Facilitate Field Research Collaboration in Polar Bears (Ursus maritimus)
Operant conditioning has been utilized by many zoos to achieve voluntary behaviors in many species to allow physical exams, biomaterial collection, and other medically indicated procedures without anesthesia or sedation. Polar bears (Ursus maritimus) present a relatively unique challenge, given their size and the potential danger they pose to staff. Oregon Zoo has been utilizing large training cages that are fitted with adaptable apertures and a head cage to safely allow voluntary oral and body part exams, toothbrushing, fluorescein staining, ophthalmic medication administration, foot radiographs, fur clipping, dermatologic diagnostics, hyposensitization (allergy) injections, blood collection, and intravenous anesthetic induction. We have noted positive improvements in some blood parameters in voluntary sampling. Intravenous inductions have resulted in improved quality of anesthesia and recovery periods. This level of training has allowed for the evaluation of techniques being employed or considered in polar bear field research in a setting where diet and activity can be controlled. As a result, our polar bears have been involved in two recent studies. Our female bear has been trained to accept an accelerometer collar, providing the opportunity to quantify energetic costs of known behaviors in a captive setting and assess the accuracy and dependability of the accelerometers for wild bears. Second, dependable blood sampling and other biomaterial collection (hair samples) allowed researchers to measure the incorporation of dietary carbon and nitrogen isotopes into hair and blood of our polar bears while consuming controlled diets, allowing for the estimation of blubber and protein content in wild polar bear diets.