Once a year, our polar bear Tatqiq gets an exam. The main purpose is to implant her birth control but also to get a good look at her teeth, body condition, and any other routine items that are helpful in keeping her healthy. February 20 was her exam day.
If you have ever taken your pet to the veterinary office for a procedure that requires anesthesia, you know that fasting is required. In preparation for this, Tatqiq did not have any food overnight and instead was given all food during the day so by evening she had her full amount. First thing in the morning we remove water, so that in the event she feels nauseous, she won’t have anything that she might aspirate—all standard procedures. The hard part for keepers is getting her to be all right with no breakfast! Whether she knew it was for her own good or not, she was a complete angel while Kalluk and Chinook had breakfast, and we were able to go about the morning not feeling completely guilty.
Once the veterinary staff arrived, Tatqiq was sedated by a dart injection. We stay with her throughout, reassuring her (and maybe ourselves, too). Once the anesthetic begins to take effect, Tatqiq comes over to where we are and lays down. It is all very nice and peaceful and without any anxiety for her. The entire procedure lasted just over an hour and a half. During that time her teeth were found to be in great shape, radiographs also confirmed that, blood was taken for routine analysis, joints were moved, our nutritionists felt all over her body to be sure she was in top body condition—not too thin, not too fat, but just right! And, of course, the tiny birth control device was implanted under her skin just between the shoulders.
We are always asked if we touch the polar bears. While Tatqiq was sedated, we sat with her and talked with her and, yes, gently touched her to give any comfort she might feel while the exam went on. Because she is beginning her annual molt, we could feel some of the new growth of fur; it was so soft. But the most beautiful sight was of the new individual pieces of fur glistening like diamonds in between the fur that she will eventually shed. We were truly in awe of how gorgeous each individual hair was.
We stayed with Tatqiq until she was awake enough to have a nice full dinner and then cuddle up in the giant hay bed we had prepared for her. Then our day ended, and she spent the night sleeping. First thing Thursday morning our girl greeted us and patiently waited while her breakfast was prepared and, yes, served first! She joined her brother Kalluk on exhibit first with a very nice neck-biting greeting, and then Chinook came over for the same.
For those who question if Chinook likes Tatqiq, here’s something to ponder: Chinook prefers to sleep outside on the beach or in the mulch if the weather is dry and only comes inside if it is raining. Last night, Chinook chose to sleep inside in the room across the hall from where Tatqiq was and was the first to check on her when we turned the lights on this morning. We‘d like to think she was concerned about her friend. What do you think?
JoAnne Simerson is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Polar Bears: Chinook and Her Beauty Mark.