Thanksgiving with Sloth Bear Buddha

I hope everyone enjoyed their Thanksgiving, ate too much, and took a moment to reflect on the things they are most grateful for. This year I am thankful for my family, and especially for my new baby daughter at home. My Thanksgiving was a bit different this year though…instead of baking apple pies and other goodies to bring over to my family’s house, I was watching our new sloth bear, Buddha.

Thanksgiving day was his second day in his new exhibit, and we needed to be there to observe how he reacted to his new enclosure. As my co-worker Suzanne mentioned in her previous blog, A New Bear On the Block, Buddha will be the first participant in a new research study conducted by the San Diego Zoo’s Giant Panda Conservation Unit.

In this new study, we will look at how well pre-marking an animal’s enclosure with his own scent helps reduce a stress response to translocation. Often animals need to be moved from one enclosure to another, and we know that this translocation process can be a stressful experience. Therefore, we’re always looking for ways to reduce this stress response and promote well-being. So, if we pre-mark an animal’s enclosure with his own scent, will that ease the transition?

To test this, we divided Buddha’s exhibit in half, marking one side with his (previously collected) feces and fur, and leaving the other side as our control without his scent. Then we observed his behavior. Would he show a preference for the side that contains his own smell? Would he still demonstrate the typical stress-related behaviors? Or would he calmly explore his new environment?

On day one of the study, Suzanne observed some interesting behavior. I, unfortunately, didn’t observe much on day two. Buddha chose to spend most of Thanksgiving morning out of view in the back bedroom area. Not only was my data a bit uninteresting, but it was also pouring rain. I got drenched!

So, despite the fact that I would have rather been home celebrating the holiday with my family, at least we finished the first phase of this study. And the thing is, the bears (and all the animals at the Zoo for that matter) don’t care that it’s Thanksgiving. In this line of work we have to bend to their needs and schedules sometimes before our own.

We haven’t begun analyzing any of the data yet, but check back soon for an update on what we’ve learned from this interesting new study. And here’s hoping that the next phase of this study doesn’t fall on Christmas!

Pamela Crowe is a research technician at the San Diego Zoo.

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