Zoos around the country have a new tool to detect if they can expect the pitter patter of little bear cub paws. Elvis, age 2, has undergone a year of training in Kansas to be able to detect proteins found only in the stool of pregnant polar bears. So far, Elvis has an accuracy level of 97%!
A Cincinnati Zoo animal conservation scientist had the idea of employing a dog for the detection job after reading about studies on being able to identify the scent of cancer through proteins found only in cancer cells. Could a dog detect the proteins found in pregnant polar bears’ stool?
Thinking outside the box for polar bear conservation
“We didn’t even know if this was possible,” said Matt Skogen, who runs Ironheart High Performance Working Dogs in Shawnee, Kansas. Dogs trained at his facility have learned to detect everything from explosives to bed bugs. So when Erin Curry, from the Cincinnati Zoo’s Center for Conservation & Research of Endangered Wildlife, approached them with the idea of training a dog to identify pregnant bears, Skogen was intrigued.
Confirming pregnancies in the threatened species is difficult yet important. Knowing if a bear is expecting helps the zoo provide specialized care. This includes separating the mother to be from the males, providing a den with extra bedding, video camera surveillance, and line up staff for 24-hour cub watches.
The right dog for the job
To train dogs for the pregnancy detection project, Skogen started with samples of bears that had already delivered babies, and used samples from females who were known not to be pregnant. A Border Collie was initially trained as well, but it was soon apparent that Elvis, a former Ozarks rabbit hunter, was much more skilled.
“He was very methodical,” Skogen said. “You could tell he was really running it through the think tank.” As any Beagle lover knows, when food and play are involved, there isn’t much a Beagle can’t do! Elvis is rewarded with food and getting to play with his favorite squeaky duck toy.
Soon Elvis was scoring with near-perfect accuracy in the lab. But how would he do with fresh samples from zoos across the country?
Soon Curry delivered a cooler full of current samples, and the real work began. She watched Elvis with anticipation to see if her idea would actually come to fruition. He sat down right in front of a control sample of a bear that had recently delivered. “I thought, ‘Whew, this works!'” Curry said.
Only a few cubs are expected
Elvis continued to work on samples of 22 female bears from 14 zoos,and Skogen made notes of the dog’s reactions. Unfortunately, it appears that only a few cubs will be arriving in the coming weeks. A few more tests results will be processed, but only Sea World in San Diego had a positive result so far.
Last year, only three polar bear cubs were born in U.S. zoos. Polar bears have complicated reproductive cycles and false pregnancies are common. The non-invasive service Elvis provides can be an important new tool in ensuring proper care of the ambassadors of this threatened species.