Monday, November 12, 2012

Polar Bear Studies

I’ve started on a new manuscript, hoping to get it done in a year or so. My working title is From Polar Bears to Porcupines. No subtitle yet, but obviously something to do with wildlife vets.  Met with my writers group yesterday for a first run through with one of the chapters about bears that will likely be somewhere in the middle.

Here is the first draft of the last 580 or so words. The events took place in the early 1980s and were part of a large study of bear ecology and population structure in the days before the polar bear became the poster child for global warming.

We have finished working with a sow and her two tiny cubs south and east of Pond Inlet on Baffin Island. They have been weighed and measured. All the samples have been collected and there is one last task to carry out before we let her go back to a normal life. I’m working with wildlife technician John Lee and helicopter pilot Tex Walker.
Out on the sea ice near Pond Inlet. John weighs a cub during our work on the bears

Now came the last mucky task. Once more into the bag. This time John emerged with his tube of Lady Clairol hair dye and a brush. Before long a huge black X, each arm about sixty centimetres long, followed by the number 5 covered the bear’s back from side to side. I had deduced, on the first bear we had worked on, that this unconventional use of a famous product was to prevent us from capturing this bear again this same year.

“How long will it last?” I had asked. “Quite a while,” John had replied. “Long after we are done with our capture program this year. It’ll be gone by next year.” 

There was no need to paint the cubs, as they would be with their mother for the rest of the season. I wonder if the folks at the Clairol company had ever imagined the scene we now saw.

I did the rounds with the stethoscope again and John read off his checklist to make sure that we had not forgotten some vital element. I took care to avoid getting the dye on myself, as John had inevitably had after dippng his brush into the black goo, and smearing it over the bear.

Now we had to hunker down and wait for the cubs to recover.  For the mother bear I had an antidote to the carfentanil that we had used to immobilize her. Not so for the ketamine/Rompun mixture that was keeping the cubs quiet. Of course I could not wake the mother up until we knew that the little guys were alert, but that did not take long. In fact they had already started to show signs of recovery, moving their tongues and heads as we finished up collecting our various samples. From that point their recovery was rapid and they soon snuggled up to their mother.

Ten minutes later, and after yet another check of the vital signs, I drew up the antidote into a syringe and injected it into the vein on the underside of her tongue. John and I had already packed up a our bags and closed the lids, as neither of us wanted to be fiddling with that sort of detail when the bear awoke, as she would do within a couple of minutes, if our experience was anything to go by.

John had already signaled Tex to start up his engines by whirling an arm above his head. Tex needed time to get his machine warmed up and airborne. Again, should my patient decide to turn and come for us we wanted to be up and away before she reached us, and a bear can cover a lot of ground very quickly if it decides to.

We walked as briskly as the snow would allow, rather than run and risk falling, back to the chopper and climbed in.  Tex upped the revs as we put on our headsets. When the bear rose, stumbled once and moved away Tex lifted us off.

         With the work on this bear finished we climbed above the site and I looked down. I could see our tracks and the trampled snow where the helicopter had been and realized that the evidence of our approach and work pattern closely resembled the symbolic shape of a Valentine’s Day heart. The chopper had been at the pointed bottom. Our own footprints and the deeper scars left where we had crawled made the arches and the trampled snow where we had worked on the bears was the point in the middle where those arches meet. 

I looked over to where she was walking with her cubs.  The hair dye stood out clearly and we could avoid harassing her again. It was time to move on.

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