Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Toda of South India: Culture and Medicinal Plants

In 1955 Joanne Van de Riet was a bright inquisitive teenager who was fascinated with the world around her. Two of her major hobbies were painting and flower pressing.  When an anthropologist visited the family home in the South Indian town of Ootacamund (Ooty) she was offered a chance to visit some nearby Toda people who lived in small communities called munds near the town.

During that visit Joanne collected and pressed as many plants as she could, particularly medicinal ones. She then sketched them.

After that she visited the school library and found the taxonomic name of each plant. Three lines of writing accompany each sketch: the taxonomic name, in most cases the Tamil name (in script) and the plant’s use. 
 All the sketches were scanned in 2013 by our daughter Karen and posted to a website  devoted to endangered languages. I have repeated the scan with only two examples here as the lettering might be difficult to read on the endangered languages site.

         According to Wikipedia the Toda people are a small pastoral community who live on the isolated Nilgiri plateau of Southern India.

Much of the Wiki information is accurate, but not all of it. Many of the old practises have been abandoned under the constant pressure of modernization.

At one time the Toda did indeed practice fraternal polyandry with one woman marrying all the brothers of another family. Missing from the Wiki report is that all the offspring of this relationship were deemed to be children of the oldest bother.  Furthermore female infanticide, which is now illegal was once routine. Polyandry has largely been abandoned.

Another remarkable fact is that the men were so dominant in society that a morning greeting involved the wife kneeling with head bowed so that the men could place a foot on her head. 

Kneeling wife and dominant husband in a morning greeting

The accompanying artwork by an unknown artist, possibly a Toda man, was made at least 70 years ago and is still in the possession of the Van de Riet family. It is a 3D piece, which does not show in the photo. It was sculpted of raw and probably unfired clay that has been coloured and has a somewhat abstract appearance.

There is also a theory that the Toda, who are very much taller and robust in stature than any other peoples of South India, are descendants of men who deserted from Alexander The Great’s army. His campaign, which only took place in Northern India began in 326 BC and ended at his death in 321. There is also an account that I have tried to verify of a visit by Greek nobility, perhaps even King Paul I or his brother George to the area in the 1940s.

As the Wiki site states the Toda built their faith around the water buffalo. According to the Todas, the goddess Teikirshy and her brother first created the sacred buffalo and then the first Toda man. The first Toda woman was created from the right rib of the first Toda man. The Toda religion also forbids them from walking across bridges, rivers must be crossed on foot, or swimming and they can't wear any shoes at all.

Toda dogie
There are interesting pictures of the dwellings, called dogies, of the Toda on the Wiki site, including a series showing how they are constructed. This photo taken in 1984 shows one such hut.

In recognition of the huts there is a concrete replica at one of the main crossroads, known as Charing Cross, in Ooty. The name is presumably a relic of former colonial days when The Nilgiri mountains (aka Nilgiri Hills or Blue Mountains) in South India was one of two hill stations much loved by the British as a place to escape the heat. When we visited the town in 1984 our taxi driver had no inkling of how to find the village and so Jo had to guide him. 
Modern home and three women
However not all the villagers used these dwellings. As the accompanying photo shows some of these huts have been replaced, at least in the community we visited in 1984 by concrete buildings more like modern ones seen all over the world. 

The other feature that is clearly visible in the photo is the long black hair of the women that is set in ringlets.

However the Wiki site has it wrong on the matter of the temples. It states that Toda temples are constructed in a circular pit lined with stones and are quite similar in appearance and construction to Toda huts. The temples only resemble the dwellings in that the upper parts above the rock base are constructed of bamboo bound with rattan and have thatched roofs.  The Wiki site also makes no mention of the fact that women were not allowed to enter the temples or even go into the pit.

Toda temple surrounded by pit
The accompanying photo, taken in 1984, shows a temple that only remotely resembles a dwelling. It does indeed have pit around it, as well as a heavy stone against the tiny door. The temple also acts as the storage place for the buffalo milk. The building may only be entered by the priest. No female may even touch a buffalo and it is only the men who milk them that may do so.

Temple door and rock
 A quote from Sir George James Frazer’s Golden Bough (1922) gives an insight into the position of the priest.
…the holy milkman, who acts as priest of the sacred dairy, is subject to a variety of irksome and burdensome restrictions during the whole time of his incumbency, which may last many years. Thus he must live at the sacred dairy and may never visit his home or any ordinary village. He must be celibate; if he is married he must leave his wife. On no account may any ordinary person touch the holy milkman or the holy dairy; such a touch would so defile his holiness that he would forfeit his office.

The photos of alleged temple and dwelling in the Wiki piece are oddly similar and are both of a home, again with a tiny door that is said to be a means of protection from wild animals. In older times this may well have been true, but decimation of wild mammal populations, a feature by no means limited to India, has no doubt reduced the risk from tigers, bears, panthers and dhole packs the much feared and voracious wild dog of the sub-continent.

Another factor led to changes in agricultural practices for the Toda. It was the wide-spread planting of exotic trees well suited to the mountain climate. There were eucalyptus forests, the trees originally imported from Australia. Joanne remembers that its gum was a useful mosquito repellent. The gum was prepared by piling up a huge mass of leaves and then starting a very slow fire underneath so that the oils dripped into pan. Some gardens were even surrounded by these trees on purpose. Another exotic tree, mimosa, was also grown in the area. It was a vital part of the film industry before the advent of digital technology.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Indian elephant in Sri Lanka - The Good and the Bad.

 In 2010 my wife, her sister and I visited Sri Lanka as tourists and soon found ourselves going to many temples and Stupas around the country. Inevitably we also ended up at places where we saw animals. In some ways the most interesting was the elephant orphanage at Pinnawala where we saw many rescued elephants and their offspring.

I learned a few interesting facts from the Wikipedia document about the sanctuary. The Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage was first established by the Sri Lankan Department of Wildlife Conservation in 1975 for feeding and providing care and sanctuary to orphaned baby elephants that were found in the wild. The orphanage was first located at the Wilpattu National Park, then shifted to the tourist complex at Bentota and then to the Dehiwala Zoo. From the Zoo it was shifted to Pinnawala village on a 25-acre (10 ha) coconut plantation adjacent to the Maha Oya River.

We were intrigued and impressed by some of the things they were doing. Perhaps the most impressive of all was the care and attention devoted to the big blind bull named Raja.
A  nice spray in the heat of the day
another trunk rest
Here he is being sprayed down. Note the way he is resting his trunk on one of his large tusks.He later switched sides for another rest.

Traffic hold up
The elephants are taken for a daily bath to the Maha Oya river that lies a couple of hundred metres from the front gate of the sanctuary. To reach the river they have to cross a main road and while the procession marches the traffic is held up.
An individual bath. ? Heaven?
 There are a few interesting YouTube videos of the bathing. Here is one such 7 minute version posted by “Jonsy Boy.

Some the elephants at the sanctuary arrived as a consequence of the long war that finally resulted in the subjugation of the Tamil minority who mostly live in the north of the country.  

Sama and her problems

One such victim was a female, named Sama, who lost her front right leg to a land mine. She can still walk but inevitably her gait is slow and she has a huge upward curve to her spine and twisted left front leg, presumably to shift the weight to her hind legs and thatc one forelimb.

Sama is last to cross, but she makes it!
However she joins the river-bound group for her daily bath.         

Breeding sucess
The program at the orphanage inevitably involves breeding (there are several males younger that Raja, so biology 101 kicks in. This general scene show the results of such activity and is back grounded by the coconut plantation where the herd was finally located.  

  More from the wiki site. The first birth at Pinnawala was in 1984, Sukumalee, a female was born to Vijaya and Kumar who were aged 21 and 20 years respectively at the time. The males Vijaya and Neela and females Kumari, Anusha, Mathalie and Komali have since then parented several baby elephants. More than twenty-three elephants were born from 1984 to 1991. In 1998 there were fourteen births at Pinnawala, eight males and six females, with one second generation birth in early 1998. Since then till early 2012, 84 more were born at Pinnawala.

            What we did not know at the time of our visit, and was of course not told us was the ugly story of what happens to the results of all that successful breeding over the years. Again a quote from the Wiki site. Quality of care of elephants who are donated or sold away from Pinnawala has been a big public issue. In 2012 The Sri Lanka Environment Trust spoke out against authorities who continue to 'donate' tamed elephants to people who had 'poor' past records of taking care of animals. "There are enough cases to show that the authorities are releasing elephants from Pinnawala to the same group of people who don't take care of the animals." Though officials boast that the animals are under close surveillance, they don't do any monitoring once an elephant is released to a private owner.

Those interested in the conservation of elephants are well aware the most of the Facebook posts and attention are devoted to the African elephant which is undergoing massive destruction across the continent as the price of ivory spirals almost of control mainly going to China. Paula Kahumbu of Kenya has been a very active in the anti-poaching campaign and you can easily find her many posts on Facebook. I have a few posts in this blog series about the ivory trade.

There have been a few posts about the Chinese end of the marketing chain, but I have a suspicion that the authorities in that country have no concern about this issue and with so many ivory carving factories there they may even be actively encouraging it.

Will Raja and his huge tusks fall victim to that greed?  Nasty thought, but it will come as no surprise if he does. The price of ivory has risen four-fold in four years. Tempting.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

A Storytelling Gig

I have just been sent a poster that describes a gig I have upcoming in Halfax Nova Scotia. This event will be in supprt of the Hope For Wildlife Society and I plan to share a few stories from my days in Africa, not just from the time I lived there, but a few research activities and more recent trips with students. This is the poster as it appears on the Storyteller of Canda - Conteurs du Canada website.

Here are a few of the pictures I may use.

My 1st wildlife patient was a giraffe

My 2nd wildlife patient was a white rhino


My 3rd wildlife patient. A constipated rhino

Bottle feedig a baby rhino
An alarmed rhino
Part of a hippo folk tale

Another part of that hippo folk tale
An elephant project in Rwanda

Equator Primary School, Uganda. A registered AIDS orhpanage.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

An Unusual Hippo Case

It has been a couple of months since I posted to this blog. This was not by intention but due to unexpected, and un-wished for events in my life that seem to have been resolved. This post takes me back thirty six and a half years to an unusual “consult” that I got involved in.   


The most unusual case I have ever dealt with came not from the Forestry Farm zoo where I did the veterinary work as part of my duties at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine, but after a 1978 January Monday morning call from Calgary. 

         “Hello Dr. Haigh, this is Greg Tarry from the Calgary Zoo. We met in the fall two years ago when you came to work with Dr. Bim Hopf on that elk we got from Banff.” I at once saw in my mind’s eye a dark-haired slim man who towered over my six feet. Dr. Hopf had been the zoo veterinarian at that time.

“What can I do for you?” I asked.

         “We have a problem. Our hippo Foggy needs some attention and Dr. Hopf is no longer here. Foggy’s canine teeth do not meet properly. The lower one on the left has not worn as it should. It has grown so long that it cuts into the inside of his upper lip and he has quit eating. He can’t even close his mouth properly and the lip has a big nasty looking ulcer on the inside. The ulcer is bleeding. We think the tooth needs cutting off, but of course we can’t do that without sedating him. Can you get here and see if you can do anything please?” 

“I guess his canines are not wearing each other down as per normal,” I replied. “Of course I’ll come – I assume you will cover my expenses.”

I was able to get away the next morning, but before that I headed to the well-stocked vet college library to put on my thinking cap about the “how to” and dig into the scientific literature to see what I could find. My results were not encouraging. Three reports mentioned a variety of drugs but all cautioned that this was a species that is difficult to deal with. If they are in water the difficulty is greatly increased because they are likely to drown as the drugs take effect. One even mentioned the use of a road grader to be driven into the water to push the patient out on to dry land before it becomes fully immobilized. Another suggested the drug fentanyl with which I was very familiar. I had that drug in my lock-up safe. I had immobilized over a hundred rhino with it and a few dozen young elephants, dozens of African antelopes and quite a number of Canadian animals. In almost all of those cases I had used a well-known sedative to enhance the effects of the fentanyl. This fellow weighed half as much again as my rhino patients at something over two tonnes, so I adjusted the dose accordingly. 

The other important tip was that long needles are essential.

No report mentioned anything about teeth and that would prove to be as interesting as the drug issue.

         The flight to Calgary was uneventful and I soon found myself looking over a high wall at the hippo, which had been locked out of his pool and was standing quietly in a passage between his daytime and night quarters and mouthing but not munching on some lettuce. A stout steel gate confined him at either end of the passage. 

         My first worry had been dealt with. The patient was not going to be able to get to water at any time until we deemed it safe. Next we descended and went to the front of his pen so that I could see his mouth. This was not so successful, even with the aid of a flashlight, but the keepers assured me that he needed help and I would find his left canine tooth embedded in his upper lip.

         After my blowgun system failed because the dart simply bounced off his hide as if was a tractor tire I had to work out an alternative. 

Two bulls duke it out.
Given hippos’ fearsome reputation for aggression I certainly was not going to stick my arm through the cage bars to give a hand-held injection.

My wife and I had witnessed this temperament when paddling on the Zambezi. Before we set out our whiplash thin guide, named Christmas, admonished us to follow him carefully to avoid the home territory of a known bad-tempered bull. 
Hippos can bite. Not good if you are in the canoe!
To emphasize this he then took us past a canoe lying on the bank that did not look exactly sound. Two jagged holes, each at least half a metre long, had been ripped through the hull on one side. Christmas explained, “One of my guests did not listen to me and went too close to a bull we know is bad. The bull came up out of the water and bit the canoe. The man was very lucky. The teeth went through the boat and missed his leg which was between those two big teeth.” We had not needed a second warning.

         For my challenging patient I rigged up a syringe with a four-inch needle at its business end and attached it to the end of a broom handle. I taped it in place with some duct tape, then climbed back up to get a bird’s eye view of him. With a single thrust I pushed the jab stick directly down into the back of his neck just right of centre.

         Five minutes later I was at the front of the passage, where Foggy had obligingly dropped to his haunches close to the stout bars. It took only a moment to lift his lip and see the ugly infected mess in his mouth and the spreading inflammation that readily explained his lack of appetite. 

         Because the bull remained somewhat aggressive, we waited ten minutes. I realized that he was not going to become fully anaesthetised but was sufficiently sedated that we could proceed as long as we got a rope onto his head to control him. All seemed well, so I asked the keepers to fill up another big syringe with penicillin, which we stuck into his shoulder region, again using a long needle.

       I began to saw his tooth.

Angle grinders had not yet been invented. If they had, it would have been the work of a few short moments to chop off the top few inches of the offending tooth. In anticipation of the task ahead I had packed a flexible wire used by veterinarians all over the world when they have to do emergency obstetrical work to cut up a dead calf that is stuck in a cow’s body. 

The Gigli saw was named after its inventor, Italian obstetrician Leonardo Gigli, to make bone cutting easy.  The Gigli was also carried by British secret agents during WWII. Its main feature is the very rough surface, a bit like a coarse file, that allows it to cut through bone quickly and efficiently—a great asset when doing amputations.

         Dr. Gigli had surely never tried to amputate a hippo tooth and I only just managed it. I used up the whole roll of wire, all three metres of it. A few strokes back and forth and the wire broke, naturally right in the middle where it had been grinding on the tooth. This left two short pieces that I could not use. I quickly discovered that hippo tooth is the hardest substance I had ever worked on. Thirty-six years later it still is. 

         Eventually, by using ever-shorter pieces of wire, and holding the ends in my hands, rather than attaching them to the handles that come with the equipment and require extra lengths for attachment, I was able to get the job done. It took almost an hour. 

         All along I had been trying to keep an eye on his breathing to see if my anaesthesia was working properly. I did not want him to wake up prematurely or or perhaps to not wake up ever again. One of Greg’s staff helped me by calling out the breathing rate and writing it down on the medical record every now and again. Those papers I had read in the vet college library had not filled me with enormous confidence.

There was one more potential problem. The scientific articles had all warned that veins are difficult to find due to the layers of fat all over a hippo’s body.  Either luck or instinct kicked in because the first place I tested was his foreleg just below the bend of his elbow. That is the spot where nurses and doctors, whether of humans or animals, have drawn blood from me and millions of other patients.  I located a nice fat vein, as big around as a ballpoint pen. It was an easy hit.

A minute after the antidote began to circulate in his body the hippo was standing and seemed none the worse for wear.

         We agreed to keep Foggy out of his pool overnight and I headed home on the evening flight. 

         Dr. Doug Whiteside who very kindly sent me medical records to refresh my memory, confirmed that after this event the zoo staff took the very wise step of training Foggy to come to the cage bars to trade goodies for good behaviour —in the form of lettuce and other favourite foods. This enabled them to spend a few minutes every day gently grinding down the other lower incisor tooth that threatened to create the same problem. This was surely a much more elegant and risk-free approach.

         Foggy lived on until 2010 when the zoo staff took the reluctant but humane step of euthanatizing him because his advanced arthritis no longer responded to treatment. He was 47 years old when he died.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Sable Island - Graveyard of the Atlantic

This is the first part of a new chapter in my book From Polar Bears to Porcupines. In 1978 I traveled to Sable Island off Canada's east coast to start a research program on seals.
The beauty of working as a half-time zoo veterinarian was that it gave me the opportunity to pursue the free-ranging wildlife side of my university post. It gave me, as it were, some free rein.
Apart from the amazing opportunity to get involved in moose research with Bob Stewart and his team I had had to make most of the overtures myself. When a call came in from Ottawa and the man identified himself as Dr. Harry Rowsell I was at first confused. He quickly put me at ease by telling me that he had been a member of our own faculty as a pathologist and was now working in the medical school in the national’s capital in the same capacity. He named several of my colleagues who worked downstairs and referred to my interest in wildlife. From there he quickly segued into an interesting pitch.
“I am the current chair of the Canadian Council on Animal Welfare and for this year, while the actual chair is on sabbatical I am also the chair of the Committee on Seals and Sealing, handily known as COSS.”
Of course I was at once interested, if a little puzzled as to the reason for the call. I half mumbled an Mh-Hh.
 He went on. “Would you be free to join me and Mr. Tom Hughes from the Ontario SPCA on a trip to Sable Island to find out how we can help with some seal research?”
You can no doubt imagine my very enthusiastic reply, although I did warn Dr. Rowsell that I had never worked with seals. I did not tell him that I had hardly ever seen one and that I had no idea where Sable Island was. 
The basic need centred around the fact that the summer grounds of the hooded seals that pupped near the Magdalen Islands were unknown and the COSS folks wanted to know more about their ecology and lives in order to protect them. It was known that they pupped and bred in spring in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, but where they got to after that was a complete mystery. 
          The plan, as Dr. Rowsell outlined, was to go to Sable Island and test systems on the grey seals that have their pups on the sandy beaches there. If we could develop a good technique then we could apply that to the hooded seals. The critical factor was the date for our trip. It had to take place in the very short period between Christmas and early February when the seals would be on land. They would either be about to pup, feeding a newborn, or breeding.  As soon as the pups were weaned and the males had done their thing the seals would be back out to sea and feeding on fish. The narrow window had everything to do with the remarkable life style of the pups. They weigh about 15 kg at birth and for the next three or four weeks they put on weight at a furious rate as they suckle five or six time a day for up to ten minutes. The milk is rich in fat and by a month or so they have at least tripled their weight! As soon as the pups are weaned the adults get on with propagating the next generation.
          The flights from Saskatoon to the east coast were uneventful and as we had all met at the Toronto airport I had a chance to get to know Dr. Rowsell, or Harry as he insisted I call him, a little better.  He was one of the most charming and gentlemanly people I have ever met and we shared a common interest in many things related to the environment and conservation.  Tom Hughes was a bluff Yorkshireman and we shared a common bond as my parents had lived near the City of York for four years after my dad retired from the Highland Light Infantry and learned the ropes as a salesman for King George IV whisky, a Distillers Company Ltd product. My first student job had involved injecting gelatin into pork pies in a factory right opposite the Rowntree’s chocolate headquarters on the northern edge of the city. 
          After an overnight stay in Halifax we headed to the airport and I was astonished to see that we were to travel to Sable Island in a three-engine plane known as the Trislander. The engines are not where you might think. There are one on each wing and the third is near the rear on a rocket-like projection just in front of the tail. The island part of the name refers to the Isle of Wight off England’s south coast. My amazement took me back many years in a flash to family connections. Both of my grandmothers had lived on the IOW for many years. Granny Haigh had moved there from Scotland after her husband, my naval captain grandpa, had died. My Wall grandparents moved to the town of Cowes where granddad, a naval architect and a naval engineer (a rare combination) lived out the last ten years of his life. The two grannies lived half an hour apart by road, but when I was a lad that was too far to go on the island’s narrow twisting roads for just one meal. It had to be lunch and tea or tea and supper. The Trislander had been developed in the town of Ventnor on the island’s southern coast a mere half-hour drive from either grannie.  
          The pilot explained that the big advantage over other aircraft was that the plane could both land and take off in a very short distance which was a good thing because Sable Island did not have an airstrip and we would have to put down on the northern beach at low tide. This gave us a narrow window for arrival. We had almost 250 km to go and conversation, other than at high volume, was not really an option. I drifted off into snooze and woke when we began our descent.
Seals dot the beach just left of centre at left.
         I was too late to take a snap of the whole island, which seemed to stretch in a long lazy curve a long way to the east. I later learned that it is about 40 km long, but beneath me all I could see was a stretch of sand with what I assumed to be seals dotted along it.
          A taciturn elderly staff member picked us up from the beach and drove a short distance in a battered old Ford half-ton to the main station. He explained that the island had been continuously occupied since 1801 and was now principally a government weather station. Part of his attitude was probably due to the fact that he was one of the last people to have been born on the island. I suspect that he resented our presence and did not like what he may have seen coming in the way of a tourist invasion.
          Sable Island only became a National Park in 2013, thirty-five years after my visit. Before that it had been a rescue station for mariners (which it still is), a Coast Guard Station and had the dubious distinction of having two light houses, one at each extremity of its long crescent, because its other name is The Graveyard of the Atlantic.  There have been at least 350 shipwrecks there so the name is well earned.      
          One consequence of those many wrecks, especially ones in the days of the sailing ships was the establishment of a thriving population of horses. As we had arrived at midday there was no chance to get to work right away so I took the chance for a late afternoon walk over the dunes beyond the buildings. I soon saw the descendants of those unfortunate beasts. Whatever the horses had looked like when they left Europe they were now ponies.  They were all much of a size and almost uniform in colour, from dark to light brown.   
        I saw them in procession along the beach and closer up, as they had no fear of man. In late February their heavy winter coats made them look scruffy, but smart was not what they needed to be. Warm and windproof was the order of the day as the winter gales swept in from the open Atlantic.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Fostering a bear cub

I have started on a new book with the working title of From Polar Bears to Porcupines. I'm far from certain of a finishing date, but here is one of the chapters that may end up there, no doubt altered by editors and writers group colleagues,  but it is at least a start. I'm calling it A Bear Cub and a Dog. 

  One could almost set one’s calendar to predict that every spring there would be a call from the provincial Department of Tourism and Renewable Resources (DTRR) about some orphan black bear cubs being found somewhere up north. The year 1980 was no exception but the timing was a lot earlier than usual and we got no call.

Black bears breed in mid-summer and usually deliver their cubs in late January or early February, when the cubs are quite tiny and almost unable to walk. They stay in the den for some time, nursing as needed and gradually growing stronger until they are ready to go exploring with mum. They stay with her until they are about a year and a half old.

This mother bear cannot have known what the terrible noise she could hear actually was.
No doubt the growling diesel engine would be a sound she knew, but probably did not associate with danger. What she cannot have known was that this particular diesel was a huge earth mover clearing an area around where she had denned up to prepare it for a mining camp.

Next thing she had been crushed to death by tonnes of a mix of earth, rock and trees.

The earth mover’s driver must have been right on the ball because he was quickly out of his cab to see what he had wrought. There were two tiny cubs nestled against her chest. Both were alive and would almost certainly have been mewling. I never met the man, but I can certainly imagine his horror at the scene. 

It was mid January 26 and bitterly cold, with daytime highs hovering around the minus 20 Celcius mark, while at night it dipped below minus 30. For an adult bear, spending much of her time in the den where she could develop a real cozy fug—that warm, smoky, stuffy atmosphere so favoured by the British— this would be no sort of challenge, and she could easily keep a cub warm and snuggled up as it lay between her front legs or on her chest where it could easily get some nourishing milk from one of her two teats, which like a human’s are level with the armpits.

These orphan cubs, which would have looked so tiny and helpless against their mother’s breasts probably weighed no more than a couple of pounds (as he would have gauged it in those pre-conversion days) with their eyes still closed and their umbilical cords hardly dry, would have no chance of living for a full day.

He must have acted right away, no doubt on the radio installed in his cab (no cell phones in 1980). With admirable speed someone on the crew bundled the cubs up in a warm blanket and headed to Saskatoon, some 400 km away.

I was out walking my morning rounds, thoroughly cloaked in winter boots, insulated trouser layer, parka and warm mitts all topped with a hood and toque when I heard the zoo truck behind me. Brent the foreman was driving and invited me to hop in. As I peeled off the headgear he explained that two tiny cubs had arrived and would I please come and look at them.

It was obvious that we had a challenge on our hands. The smallest cub was moribund, hardly responding and making no noise. It died within a couple of hours. The larger cub, a male, still had its eyes closed and a 10 cm length of dried umbilical cord was attached to it belly. It weighed just under a kilogram, so the driver had been right on, even without benefit of a scale. Perhaps he was from the north and an experienced fisherman, which would have been no surprise given that Saskatchewan has over 100,000 lakes, most full of fish.

If my reference books were correct this meant that the cub might have than doubled its birth weight and could have been as much as two weeks old, a very early arrival indeed.

We had had to bottle raise bear cubs several times in past years, but they had been further along on their development and weighed two or three kilograms by the time they reached us. Two years before this little guy arrived I had even helped out with the bottle raising and had taken two little cubs home.
In the basement with Karen, Charles and our new tenants.
In the late 1970s sideburns were “in”.

Charles lifts a heavy burden as his dad feeds one of the cubs.
A new playmate for Puss-in-Boots, or is that the other way round?

There our family, including our new kitten that we named Puss-in-Boots, got into the act right away, although we did restrict them to the basement, or rumpus room as it was called in those days. The term fitted well once the kitten and the cubs got going.

            My wife Jo had returned to her medical career after two years of being a stay-at-home mum to raise our children, Karen, eight, and Charles nearly three. Jo’s work hours as a junior member of staff were pretty crazy, on duty every other night, but she had to get back into the system.

Celia cuddles the cubs
           Celia had joined the family from England to help out with the children and she took to the task of feeding the cubs with enthusiasm. It is not every au pair girl from the English midlands who gets to feed bear cubs from a bottle every few hours! Of course the kids had joined in, Karen having no trouble, but Charles a tad too little to actually hold both bottle and bear.

            Even before I came to Canada the zoo staff had had experience raising bear cubs and so they got into the act right away. An evaporated milk product was diluted with some water and fed in small amounts every three hours. Every time, right after the feed, a damp cloth was used to help him eliminate and all seemed well. The new cub showed a real tenacity and was obviously going to survive if nothing went wrong. Celia had gone back to England and with the kids in school and kindergarten we could not take this little guy home.

 It was soon obvious that, in terms of being able to function, especially sleep, was a major challenge for the keepers, most especially for Sharon who had more or less adopted the cub but began to look distinctly jaded over the next few days. On top was the little matter of overtime, the care of many other creatures that needed her attention, work hours and so on.

Then I had a light bulb moment: I knew from something that Jo had told me when we were first married that white elephant calves were greatly revered, even worshipped, in some oriental and Indian cultures. Such a calf would be raised by a team of human wet nurses. My imagination and knowledge of the milk intake required by a 150 kg elephant calf, as opposed to a 3 or 4 kilo human baby could only create a line-up round the room with a gorgeous rainbow-coloured array of sari-clad mothers, like butterflies in a tropical garden doing a tag-team act.

One of the most remarkable examples of this particular form of cross fostering used to occur in Siam (now Thailand). In his 1931 book Siamese State Ceremonies: Their History and Function: With Supplementary Notes HoraceGeoffrey Quaritch Wales documented the god-like position held by the king and described in great detail the reverence afforded to any white elephant and the rewards given to any person who found one and brought it to his majesty. 

… I may add that it was formerly the custom to provide young White Elephants with a large number of human wet-nurses. I have in my possession a photograph, taken about a dozen years ago, of a Siamese woman suckling a young elephant, probably a white one.

There are other similar accounts from Burma. Shelby Tucker in the book Among Insurgents:Walking Through Burma records the reverence afforded white elephants and stated that the Burmese ladies competed for the privilege of being a wet nurse. Other human / animal wet nurse stories come to mind. There are plenty of records of such a practice. For instance, as reported by Samuel Radbill in 1976, travelers in Guyana observed native women breastfeeding a variety of animals, including monkeys, opossums, pacas, agoutis, peccaries and deer. I have seen pictures of women nursing monkey and pig youngsters.

When it comes to bears, I was told during my first visit to Pond Inlet on the northern tip of Baffin Island to work on a polar bear project that women sometimes wet-nurse abandoned polar bear cubs. I have written about this to the folks at the Nunavut Arctic College in they have left no stone unturned in contacting a host of other helpful people from many northern communities. A flood of emails arrived, but no one has any record of such an activity, although almost all knew of polar bear cubs that had been bottle raised.   Either I misunderstood my informant or it may have been a leg-pull. On the other hand it might be true but forgotten due to the action of the sands of time, as bear cubs have been nursed by women of the Ainu people of far northern Japan and by the Itelmens of Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula.

There are other unusual wet nurse and cross-fostering stories. These days it is simple to mine the archives of Google, which will open up all kinds of accounts of such activity. The story of the founding of Rome by the brothers Romulus and Remus, nursed by a she-wolf, is a classic. Dogs seem to be commonly used, and there are accounts of them nursing piglets, and both tiger and bear cubs (not at the same time). Many species, including human babies, have been nursed by goats, which seem to be a sort of “universal donor” at least for animals with hooves.

For the little bear cub at the zoo it was just a case of trying to find a suitable lactating female (not a human) to be the milk donor.

In those pre-laptop, pre-Google days of 1981, but having some knowledge of this practice, I said to Brent “Let me call Dr. Olfert at the animal resource centre at the university and see if we can get some help.”

We were in luck.  Dr. Olfert told me that a Terrier-cross bitch had just whelped and that we could borrow her for the unusual task of raising a bear cub.

The zoo van was quickly on its way to the campus, and an hour later the little family was safely settled in the barn, with plenty of straw bedding. I was unsure if the bitch would accept the newcomer to her cute litter of four mainly white pups, with the only black on them being around their heads and ears.
The milk bar is open

Although I have later learned that dogs will often accept such newcomers without the aid of drugs I decided to sedate her and try to fool her into thinking that nothing unusual had happened when she woke. I gave her an injection that knocked her out and then took a cue tip and smeared some of her faeces over the little cub to try and fool her into thinking that he was one of hers that needed a clean-up. When I put the cub at her belly he at once latched on and began to suck as if there was no tomorrow.

When she awoke the bitch at once began to check on her litter, and it was obvious that she considered the cub to be just one of the gang. He took no notice of the attention, but of course he had quickly fallen asleep after his feed. He soon perked up and within a week was mixing with the pups, rolling, play-growling and so on, although in a slightly different language and generally having a good time.

All went well for about four weeks, but on my daily check-ups I began to notice that her udder looked sore and on closer examination I thought that the needle-sharp claws of her foster child might be causing the problem. She seemed to be uncomfortable as soon as he began to feed and I needed to do something before she rejected him outright. 

I doubt that an almost five-week-old bear cub has ever had his toenails clipped before, but that is what we did. While Sharon held the little guy I used a set of human clippers to do the job. He struggled a bit, but the process went smoothly, unlike some dog clipping wrestling matches I engaged in during my general practice days in Kenya.  We then wrapped the ends of his feet in sticky tape to try and further protect the udder and put him back with his buddies.

This worked for only two more days and then she simply turned off the taps. One day the pups and the cub were nursing: the next she would have nothing to do with them. I suspect that the cub’s tiny needle-sharp teeth may also have led to this dismissal.

We had weighed the cub every three days and he had made great progress, now stretching the spring to over two kilograms. I considered that he need more milk for a while and so we went back to the same evaporated milk as before, but at a lesser dilution, and only three times a day.

He did lose weight for three days, but then the scale began to stretch every day. Within a month he was up to five kilos. The pretty little bitch went home with all but one of her charges. We hung on to him for about another month as he and the cub had formed a bond and seemed to spend their days roughhousing, eating or sleeping curled up together.

Play time for the odd couple
Within a coupe of weeks he was losing interest in the milk as he had found a much more enticing diet in the bowl full of milk, fruit and ground meat on offer.  The buddies stayed indoors for another six weeks, the cub leaving the pup in the dust both literally when they played and weight–wise. On April 15, two and half months after he arrived, he weighed fifteen kilos, almost as much as the bitch had weighed when she adopted him.

By now the weather had warmed up and we had two more cubs in the outside run (with a good shelter attached). They had arrived from a logging camp where their unfortunate mother had taken to terrorizing the staff as she raided the kitchen area in early March, a much more “normal” time and so the now not-so-little guy joined them. It took him only five days to become “top dog’. First to the food-bowl, and as he weighed a few kilos more than his pen mates, generally bossing them around. 

There is a true but sad ending to this and other bear events at the Forestry Farm zoo during the time I served as the veterinarian there. Each year, as soon as the children went back to school in early September, the now half-gown cubs were disposed of. Many went to a hunt ranch in the USA, but when that operation no longer wanted them they were simply shot. My protestations fell on deaf ears.

Perhaps I was being unrealistic. First of all, the pen was quite unsuitable for anything larger than a six-month old bear. Second they had been brought in on compassionate grounds, and to excite the children. Now there were no small visitors.

Even today, in early 2014, zoos struggle with the successes of their breeding programs. A world-wide Facebook campaign about the culling of a giraffe at the Copenhagen zoo that garnered 30,000 signatures within a few days highlighted the problem of surplus animals. What is one going to do with creatures that cannot be kept, either for economic reasons, or because they are no longer able to contribute to the genetic pool that so many responsible zoo managers work with? Keeping a giraffe in captivity is an expensive business. Many dollars a day are required on food supplies alone. On top are keeper’s wages, barn heating, veterinary work, and so on and so on.

In a online article of Feb10 2014, titled Marius The Giraffe Is Not The OnlyAnimal Zoos Have Culled Recently Lisa Abend opens with this statement: The killings of animals including zebras and pygmy hippos are necessary for conservation, zookeepers say, leading to mandatory euthanization in an effort to ensure there's room for other species, especially ones that need special protection.”

The article is accompanied by the remarkable picture of a big male lion tearing at the carcass of a reticulated giraffe. Abend adds more species to her list and these come from European zoos. They include “Zebra, antelopes, bison, pygmy hippos, and tiny Red River hog piglets.” Leopard cubs and other pig species are also listed.

At the Forestry Farm, in these much more enlightened times, the only bears in the collection are a pair of orphaned and fully human-habituated grizzlies, and they live in a brand new enclosure that provides as much space as is feasible. They are fed a balanced diet and would probably have no clue how to survive in the wild. They would also be a real hazard if released as they would terrify and possibly attack any person who might have the misfortune to encounter them.