Thursday, May 26, 2016

A Wet Nurse for a Bear Cub

There has been an unexpected delay in the publication of my new book Porcupines to Polar Bears.    

The manuscript was ready to go in late January. The intended launch date was at the beginning of April. A couple of things beyond my control have put that back and the printer still has not got the book to Dragon Hill, my publisher.  While I wait I will post a small number of edited clips to give an idea of the work and hopefully tickle your fancy. Here is one. 

 A sure sign of spring in the 1970s and 80s was the arrival of orphan bear cubs at the Forestry Farm Zoo in Saskatoon. Most often the mothers had been shot when they became a danger to humans in logging camps in the north. The cubs usually arrived in early March.

One mother bear cannot have known what was coming when she heard the growling noise of diesel engine approaching. The machine was a huge earth mover clearing an area around her den 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 driver of the enormous machine must have been right on the ball when he saw the dead bear because he was quickly out of his cab to see what he had wrought. There were two tiny cubs nestled against the sow’s chest. Both were alive and would almost certainly have been mewling. He must have been horrified.

It was late January and bitterly cold, with daytime highs hovering around the minus twenty centigrade mark, while at night it dipped below minus thirty. For an adult bear, spending much of her time in the den she could develop a real cozy fug—that warm, smoky, stuffy atmosphere so favoured by the British— this temperature 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.

The cubs eyes were still closed and their umbilical cords hardly dry. They would have no chance of living for a full day.

The driver 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.

It was obvious that there was a real challenge at hand. The smallest cub was moribund, hardly responding and making no noise. It died within a couple of hours. The eyes of the larger cub, a male, were closed and a 10 cm length of dried umbilical cord was attached to it belly. On the zoo scale it weighed under a kilogram.

Given that reading it had likely doubled its birth weight and was no more than two weeks old, a very early arrival indeed.

Bottle raising bear cubs was nothing new the zoo staff. Those previous ones were much further along on their development and weighed two or three kilograms by the time they reached us. They did well on evaporated milk and soon dived into some added solids fed twice a day.

The tiny new orphan would need to be ‘on the bottle’ every three hours day and night. Obviously impossible given the small number of staff. Another solution was needed.
Romulus and Remus and their foster mum
Could a foster-mother be found? Other human / animal wet nurse stories come to mind. The classic, which may be more myth that fact is the story of the founding of Rome by the brothers Romulus and Remus, nursed by a she-wolf. There are plenty of records of humans nursing animals. 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.

It became a case of trying to find a suitable lactating female. In those pre-laptop, pre-Google days of 1980, but having some knowledge of this practice, I called Dr. Ernie Olfert at the animal resource centre at the university and see if we can get some help. We were in luck. A Terrier-cross bitch had just whelped. We could borrow her for the unusual task of raising our little orphan.

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.

Although I have later learned that dogs will often accept such newcomers without the aid of drugs it seemed prudent to sedate her and try to fool her into thinking that nothing unusual had happened when she woke. The injection soon had her dozing soundly. Next, the faeces on the Q-tip that I had briefly put into her rear end was smeared over the little cub. He took no notice.

The objective was to try and fool the bitch into thinking that he was one of hers that needed a clean-up. When the hungry cub was placed at her belly he at once latched onto a teat and began to suck as if there was no tomorrow.
The milk bar is open

Even before she was fully awake the bitch began to check on her litter. She licked both cub and pups. He was just one of the gang. 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 than his “litter-mates”. He was having a good time.

All went well for about four weeks, but on my daily check-ups it became obvious that her udder looked sore. 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 we needed to do something before she rejected him outright. 

It is unlikely that a five-week-old bear cub has ever had his toenails clipped, but that is what we did. While keeper Sharon held the squirming little guy I used a set of human clippers to do the job. He struggled a bit and made his objection known with little squalls. Other than that 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. It seems probable that the cub’s tiny needle-sharp teeth may have finally led to this dismissal. The pretty little bitch’s job was done. She went home with all but one of her charges to Dr. Olfert’s care at the university.

We had weighed the cub every three days and he had made great progress, now stretching the spring to over two kilograms. He would need more milk for a while and so we went back to the standard evaporated milk for bear cubs, only three times and then twice a day.

He did lose weight for the first two days, but then the scale began to stretch every day. Within a month he was up to five kilos.

Play time
We hung on to him for about another month as he and one cub had formed a bond and seemed to spend their days roughhousing, eating or sleeping curled up together.

Within a coupe of weeks the pair were losing interest in the milk as they found a much more enticing diet in the bowl full of milk, fruit and ground meat on offer.  

The two 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, the same as his foster mother when she adopted him.

No comments: