Last week Como Zoo became only the second zoo in the country to obtain a voluntary blood sample from a Polar Bear! Como Zoo is home to two 19-year-old male Polar Bears who have been involved in a training program even before they arrived at the zoo in 2002. Over the past year zookeepers have been working this voluntary blood draw behavior, with both of our Polar Bears, and on Wednesday we were able to obtain a blood draw sample from Neil. Drawing blood from these large animals is usually done when they are anesthetized. However, The process of being tranquilized is stressful for the animals and staff. This new method of drawing blood voluntarily during a training session will open the door for more advanced medical care, as well as possible research opportunities.
While a lot of training does happen behind the scenes, the “blood sleeve” is in the Ecolab training station which can be viewed by the public. This blood sleeve was a new approach also, the only other successful zoo obtained blood from the hind paw; we obtained blood from the front paw. Neil was asked to place his paw into the sleeve, leaving access to the top of his paw. He was trained to allow his paw to be shaved, scrubbed with alcohol, and finally pricked with a needle. Neil’s trainer Julie Yarrington said “surprisingly the hardest part for Neil was getting over the strong alcohol smell, he did not even seem to notice the needle sticks!”
While the blood draw is important to Neil’s health care it also allows us to possibly participate in more research projects that require regular sampling. With many wild polar bear populations struggling, the need for more polar research is increasing. Wild polar bears are difficult to access, let alone obtain regular sampling, and researchers are hoping bears in Zoos can help in their plight. With more training advancements, like voluntary blood draws, the captive bear research is more attainable and appealing.
Over 25 species of animals participate in Como Zoo’s Operant Conditioning Training Program and many of our training advancements go unnoticed by zoo visitors. We always strive to accomplish more with our training program, with our main goal being better medical care for these animals and that starts with getting better diagnostic voluntary samples. Como Zoo will continue to explore more ways to teach these animals to participate in their own health care to lessen their stress and maximize our ability to care for them.
-Zookeepers Julie and Allison