The summer is just flying by—it’s hard to believe we are already into August! As promised, with the beginning of August we are once again looking into ultrasound exams with Chinook. Can it already be nine months since our last ultrasound? Last Friday we had an appointment with our veterinary staff to begin getting our beautiful bear back into the swing of things and, to be honest, get all of Chinook’s caretakers back into the routine as well.
The process of performing an ultrasound with a polar bear is not quite as straight forward as you would think. No wonder Chinook is the only polar bear in the universe that does ultrasound without anesthesia. First, we gather the supplies: Where did the ultrasound probe protection sleeve go? Ah yes, it was borrowed for a camel ultrasound a few months back. The ultrasound machine (a high-tech, portable Aloka) fit perfectly, protected under the counter in the polar bear kitchen for the last few months. And, of course, the all-important gel! Plus squirt bottles to mix the gel with water to help view through Chinook’s lush belly fur. Lastly, the most important item—creamy peanut butter! This is the favored treat made into liquid that our Chinook loves to slurp while her belly is rubbed during ultrasounds.
Friday afternoon arrived and all was ready, with Chinook sitting regally in her training crate watching all the set up. She had freedom to move anywhere else but seemed content to watch. All was finally in place for the first session in nine months. We were prepared that perhaps it might take a bit to refresh Chinook’s memory and regain a bit of her enthusiasm for the behavior. Boy, were we WRONG! At our first ask of her to turn around and lean into a roll-over, she gave a look that said “What took so long?” and immediately rolled over perfectly. Not even a second glance as the watery gel was applied and then followed by the ultrasound probe. Chinook simply rested, enjoying her grapes, fish, and the all-important creamy-peanut-butter “soup.” Oh, Miss Chinook, you are truly an incredible bear! What an ambassador for your wild counterparts, and what a thrill it is to work with you.
So what did we see with the ultrasound exam? As our veterinarian said, “All the right abdominal stuff.” We absolutely don’t expect to see anything this early. The ability to ultrasound Chinook for possible pregnancy is a path to get many polar bear reproduction questions answered. We know so little about the implantation process and fetal growth. This information will add to what we need to know to protect critical denning habitat for polar bears in the wild. We will be able to better know the critical times to keep these areas safe.
The news coming from the Arctic is not great these days. In June, we saw the fastest loss of ice ever measured. July brought the second-lowest ice extent and the beginning of the old ice melt. It is the old, multi-year ice that is so important to keeping the Arctic cold and our entire planet cool. Today, San Diego announced what an impact our community has had on improving our air quality. What a great testimony to what we can all do to help our environment! We must all continue to keep working as individuals, groups, communities, nations, and the world to keep our planet safe.
JoAnne Simerson is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Polar Bears: “Who’s Who”.