Motherhood: What if…

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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?

Realistically, these are all questions zoo keepers, animal care managers, and veterinarians must ask when a zoo animal with no maternal experience is pregnant. Although we always have high hopes that the natural maternal instinct will kick in as soon as the baby is born, we have to prepare for all scenarios. Discussions among animal care personnel eventually lead to a “birth management plan.” The plan may begin with prenatal care, housing changes, camera installation, and den provisions. Somewhere in the middle of the plan are the answers to most of those “what ifs.” We have to decide how long we will leave the new mother undisturbed. We then have to consider how we can effectively assess the condition of the baby if there is fear that the baby is not being properly nurtured. We have to plan for the extreme case of removing the baby for veterinary treatment and hand-rearing. The Zoo’s Nutrition Department and nursery staffs need to develop a hand-rearing protocol and, most importantly, come up with a proper formula replacement. We also have to think about strategies for offering supplemental feedings if the baby’s growth rate on Mom’s milk isn’t up to par.

A tiny Kalluk or Tatqiq is feed formula while in quarantine at the Zoo in 2001.

The hand-rearing portion of the plan is where I come in. I am a member of the five-person Nursery Team at the Zoo. I was one of the keepers that hand-mixed (gallons and gallons of) milk formula for the tumbling youngsters Kalluk and Tatqiq when San Diego welcomed them into our Zoo family nine years ago. It really doesn’t seem that long ago, and it’s hard to believe that Kalluk may be a dad some day! Sorry, I digress…

Anyway, in addition to getting our hand-rearing protocol in order, two members of our nursery staff were able to participate in more than just the standard preparation. Beginning last April, Joanne Mills and I were given the opportunity to be secondary polar bear keepers. How cool is that? It so happened that the nursery workload was light while the polar bear keepers were extra busy. We were quickly shown the ins and outs of exhibit cleaning, bear feeding, etc. (Oh, I could say so much about the opposite sides of the feeding spectrum: polar bears versus nursery babies. I couldn’t believe how much meat was served to polar bears each day!)

It took a whole five minutes to fall in love with the magnificent threesome. I don’t know why it took that long. We soon realized there was a huge advantage to having nursery keepers working with the polar bears at this time of year. If any of the less-than-perfect birth scenarios occurred, Chinook would already be familiar and calm with nursery keepers. If we had to step in to offer any postnatal assistance, we would already have her trust.

Now, unfortunately, it seems as if our window of possible pregnancy is closing. We’ve been so disappointed that nothing has shown up on the ultrasounds. Our high hopes have diminished. If we aren’t lucky enough to see Chinook as a mother this year, we’ll just transfer our high hopes to next year. At least we’ve gone through all the thought processes and planning stages, and we’ll definitely be ready for whatever comes our way, whenever it comes our way.

Becky Kier is a senior nursery keeper at the San Diego Zoo.