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.