Many zoos recognize the value of training animals to participate voluntarily in medical procedures because it reduces stress on the animal and alleviates risks associated with anesthesia that otherwise might be necessary. Over the past few years, Cincinnati Zoo staff has made impressive strides with Berit, a female polar bear, who has acquired a remarkable repertoire of trained behaviors. Training consultant Megan-Kate Hoover is to thank for working with Berit on these trained behaviors. In efforts to diagnose pregnancy, she has learned to push her belly against a mesh training wall and tolerate CREW scientists prodding her with an ultrasound probe. When she needed infertility treatments in the form of hormone injections, she learned to stand willingly to receive an injection in her shoulder.
When CREW scientists wanted to document vulvar changes associated with different stages of estrus, she was trained to walk into a narrow transfer chute, which was closed on three sides, turn around, take three steps backwards, and then allow her tail to be lifted- a complicated sequence of behaviors which she mastered. Most recently, she learned to present her foot for blood collection, becoming one of just a handful of polar bears in the world to offer this behavior.
An animal’s voluntary participation in procedures permits improved medical surveillance and provides unique opportunities for research that would not be feasible with wild bears. Due to the logistical challenges associated with collecting serial samples from the same bear in a field setting, scientists are using bears like Berit as models to learn more about the complex physiology of this species.