Sunday, November 23, 2008

Not your average morning

Last Friday was a reminder to me that I do not have a normal 9-5 job.

My day started out in the Primate building, where the keepers and vets were preforming a routine physical on Schroeder, Como Zoo's biggest gorilla weighing in at 500lbs. Once fully sedated, the cardiology team from the University of Minnesota were able to get some great ultrasound views of Schroeder's heart, even to the point of being able to see the valves opening and closing. Schroeder also had his teeth and blood work checked, blood pressure tested, and got all his necessary vaccinations.

Following a successful procedure where Schroeder received a clean bill of health, I went to the Aquatic Animal building where I assisted with ultrasounds for our seals and sea lions. This was merely practice for the pinnipeds and they did swimmingly (pun intended!), holding very still for the veterinarian and giving us a good picture of their internal organs.

Definitely not your average morning...

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Near-sighted Orangutan

Have you ever had to hold something close to your face to focus on it? This can be a sign that your vision is changing. Being a human, you would be able to go to the opthamologist and have an eye exam done. Easy right? Now try having the same problem, but you're an almost 300 pound male orangutan. You can't tell the zoo keepers you're having trouble focusing, all you can do is show them. Recently, we had an opthamologist from the University of Minnesota confirm that Jambu, the adult male orangutan at the zoo, is near-sighted. Zoo keepers have suspected that Jambu may have trouble focusing on things further than arms' distance because he examines new items that he is given by holding them a foot or less away from his face. During an operant conditioning training session, Jambu was given a preliminary examination from an opthamology vet from the U of M. Jambu was an excellent patient, but being a wild animal, the opthamologist was not able to get as close as she needed for a full exam and still be safe. Last week though, when Jambu was scheduled for his annual physical, the opthamologist was able to examine him fully while he was under sedation. She confirmed that Jambu is extremely near-sighted in his right eye, much more so than in his left. As of now, Jambu continues to get along very well with his limited vision, so aside from continuing his eye exams during training sessions, no further action will be taken.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

1) I'm wondering what sort of people take the trips on the buggies -- what draws them to Churchill for this experience -- and what sort of training or orientation are they given to keep a respectful distance from the bears?

I was surprised by the variety of people who took trips to Churchill! Many of the guests were not from North America; a lot of folks were from the United Kingdom, Australia, or New Zealand. That being said, all of the guests had one thing in common: They love polar bears! Many people were there because they believed it would be their last chance to see polar bears in the wild.

Many were also very interested the other wildlife around Churchill. We saw a number of snowy owls perched on rocks in the tidal flats, ptarmigan (which is an Arctic member or the grouse family) and both red and arctic foxes. Some buggies even got to see caribou (I was not so lucky).

In addition to being nature lovers, a significant number of photographers joined us on board the buggies.

In reference to your question about any training, before a group goes out on the tundra, the drivers give an introduction to the day and discuss the buggy rules and the importance of respect for the animals. In Manitoba it is illegal to harass, bait, or feed polar bears, and this law is taken very seriously by the citizens and tour companies. Drivers explain that there is no food or drink allowed on the back deck; anyone caught feeding or baiting a bear will be picked up from the buggy by a helicopter, at their cost, and flown back to town. They will also be fined or could serve jail time. In a situation where the person is not able to be identified, the entire buggy and all on board will return to launch. In my expereince, guests always understood the importance of this law and no one ever tried to sneak the bears food.

In addition, the drivers are trained to pay attention to the body language of the animals as we approach them in the buggies. They emphasize that we are traveling in the bears’ territory. If a driver senses a bear is uncomfortable with the buggy's presence, they will respect that animal by not approaching them or leaving the area. As an animal trainer, I was very impressed by how well the drivers and tour guides know the animals!

Polar Bears International (PBI) was also able to fund a research project to evaluate the effect of ecotourism on the bears. The results identified various ways tundra vehicles could approach bears to minimize a response from them. The research also helped to understand precursor behaviors bears display that indicate a potential negative response to the buggies.

2) Now that you're back, if you what do you wish you would have known before you went on this trip that would have made it a better experience for you?

I wish I would have had a better camera! My point and shoot digital did not do justice to the bears or the scenery. But other than that, I felt very well prepared. Prior to my trip, I was given hundreds of pages of information by PBI to read and learn. In addition, working with our polar bears at Como Zoo and answering visitors' questions was a lot of help in preparing me for what I encountered in Churchill.

Thanks again for your questions!