Polar Bear Keepers
It has been a really busy beginning to 2011. Chinook let us know in December that cubs were not on the way (see post Polar Bears: What December Brings), and she was ready to join her buddies Kalluk and Tatqiq in life at Polar Bear Plunge. As keepers this is sometimes a worrisome time: not sure if the relationships from the past will still be there. Of course, after some initial greeting time, the famous three were up to their old antics. It is also the time of the year that the girls seem to be best friends, and Kalluk spends more time practicing his basketball skills!
Boris, our young reindeer, mastered his base training and was ready to move on to a more advanced reindeer game (see Reindeer Boris: Basic Training). Since he had done well so far, we decided it would be enriching and beneficial to introduce Boris to a halter so that he could walk with his keeper.
The first time Boris felt his halter slide over his long furry muzzle and up around his ears, he stood quietly for a few seconds, probably a little puzzled. Next, he tossed his head and rubbed his face on his keeper’s shirt, maybe trying to figure out what kind of large bug had landed on his muzzle and wrapped itself around his ears. Help! After a few reassuring words, and a short, gentle introduction to this new creature called a “halter,” Boris began to relax and learn.
If you visit Wegeforth Bowl at the San Diego Zoo to see the animal show, you may be treated to watching a sea lion swim, a lynx pounce, or a serval cat leap. These amazing behaviors performed on cue are the result of the many hours of training put in by our dedicated animal behavior staff. Training is key to the success of our animal shows and presentations. Training is also instrumental in animal care and management. On a stroll through the Zoo, you might notice a keeper asking a lion to rub her side against a fence or asking an ape to present his hand or chest. Training is going on everywhere at the Zoo, with animals from great apes to meerkats. Not only can it make life on exhibit much easier for both the animal and its keeper, it is also enriching. Working with a baby animal allows us the unique opportunity to start training at an early and impressionable age. The behaviors young Boris, our newest reindeer, learns to display in his Zoo environment now will help us manage him as an adult reindeer. (See previous post, Boris Learns Reindeer Games.)
I’ve just returned from my annual trip to Churchill in Manitoba, Canada, to work with Polar Bears International. This was my 10th year of doing so, and, as many of you know, I have seen dramatic changes in the environment and animals that live there in just this decade. This year has provided the shortest ice season in recorded time: the polar bears lost a full nine weeks of hunting time. The water and air temperatures for November and December continue to be above normal, delaying the formation of ice again this year. The polar bears have been hunting during low tide and have been fortunate to occasionally find harbor seals resting among the rocks. The bears must be vigilant that they return to the shore before the tide rushes in.
See Kim’s previous post, Reindeer Baby Boris Grows Up.
The next big step in Boris’ social introduction was encouraging him to live in the main exhibit with the herd. To help make his move successful, we set up a “creep” for Boris. A creep is a small, safe pen, similar to a “howdy pen,” where a young animal can go to escape the herd and also meet his keepers for bottles.
It’s hard to believe summer is a distant memory, and fall is quickly passing. Can we already be into the middle of November? Six months ago we were all so sure our Chinook would be caring for cubs. We’ve not yet given up, but the wait and uncertainty is almost un”bear”able. We will just have to wait a bit longer to know if we will be welcoming any cubs to our family.
What if San Diego Zoo polar bear Chinook gives birth to a beautiful healthy cub? What if the cub is sick or hurt just after it is born? What if Chinook doesn’t know what to do with her tiny squawking bundle? What if she can’t produce enough milk? What if the confusion of first-time motherhood is too much for Chinook to handle? How could we help? What should we do? What would we do?
Why would we even entertain such horrible thoughts? What’s with all the doom and gloom?
See Kim’s previous post, Reindeer Baby Boris Comes Home.
As Boris grew older, physical changes in him became more and more obvious. He was getting taller and more muscular. His thick velvet coat was getting even more dense, and antler buds were beginning to grow on top of his fuzzy black head. Every once in awhile Boris would delicately balance on three legs in order to scratch an antler bud with his hoof, as if satisfying a little itch. He also began growing the thick patch of skin and hair that reindeer display under their throats. Boris was beginning to look more like a reindeer and less like a Holstein calf! (more…)
See Kim’s previous post, Reindeer Baby Boris.
Back home at the San Diego Zoo’s reindeer exhibit in Polar Bear Plunge, keepers set up a “howdy pen” where Boris could continue to gain coordination and strength. We use howdy pens to create a safe and secure place for our young animals to go to if needed. We also developed a daily routine for Boris. In the morning, Boris left his howdy pen and followed us into the exhibit. The reindeer exhibit at the Zoo is lushly planted, steep, and large—great housing for the adult reindeer to navigate but tough for little Boris. We noticed in the late afternoons, when things were quiet, the curious adult reindeer (mother included) made their way down the hill and into Boris’ pen to investigate, sniffing him and helping themselves to his food and water. These were the first signs that the herd was accepting Boris.
“What is that?” keeper Pamela Weber wondered as she surveyed the reindeer exhibit at the San Diego Zoo. In the corner of the exhibit was a furry black bundle, completely unexpected. Did a wild raccoon or opossum somehow make its way into the enclosure? Upon closer inspection, Pamela realized it was, of all things, a baby reindeer!