Since arriving last October from sister site Edinburgh Zoo, staff at the Highland Wildlife Park have been training Mercedes, the only polar bear in a UK zoo, to facilitate health checks. Today (Monday 9 August 2010), Mercedes was weighed at the Highland Wildlife Park as she was persuaded to walk onto mechanical scales in her enclosure.
Using the common training practice of positive reinforcement (whereby an animal is rewarded for displaying a required behavior), staff at the Highland Wildlife Park have continued training started by her keepers at Edinburgh Zoo that allowed for some basic health checks to be carried out without the need for anesthesia.
However, until now keepers have never been able to get a true picture of her weight. This important measurement is key for health monitoring purposes, and also for ensuring that correct dosages of medicines, anesthetics etc are given. Animal Collection Manager at Highland Wildlife Park , Douglas Richardson, explains the process:
“Mercedes’ keepers have done an excellent job in gradually and gently enticing her onto the scales that are placed in a small passageway that connects her two roofed den areas. Although Mercedes is actually quite gentle for a polar bear, we still need to be very careful when working close to her, even when separated by a wall of steel mesh, as she is very capable of harming any one of us. The real drive to get her weighed accurately is to allow us to carry out a comprehensive health check. She gives all the signs of being in perfect health, but she is at the upper end of a polar bear’s lifespan and we want to ensure that we are not missing any potential age-related problems that may reduce her quality of life if they are not dealt with. All wild animals are pre-conditioned to hide illness to avoid predation or harassment, and a zoo polar bear is no exception, so her pending health check is very important.”
Edinburgh Zoo was home to Mercedes the polar bear before she moved to the Highland Wildlife Park at the end of last year. Mercedes was rescued from her native Canada after she was scheduled to be shot. Unfortunately, she began roaming into a nearby town in search of food and, as they are dangerous animals, this behaviour had to be discouraged. Initially, she was captured and the number ‘39’ was painted on her coat which allowed her to be tracked. On her third visit the decision was made to shoot her. Luckily, she was rescued and the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS) offered her a home at Edinburgh Zoo.
Now at the Highland Wildlife Park , Mercedes has her own four and a half acre purpose-built enclosure where she has settled in extremely well. Mercedes has been on her own for 13 years, which is the natural state for this solitary species.
Thanks to a shrinking polar ice-cap and shortening polar ice season, polar bears (Ursus maritimus) have come to the forefront of conservation concerns. While some have speculated that polar bears might become extinct within 100 years, conservation experts (IUCN) have categorised them as “Vulnerable” as some populations have decreased markedly in recent years. Deterioration of the Arctic environment, including climate change, has reduced reproductive rates and contributed to low body weights and the build-up of toxins in the bears’ bodies. This means that the modern zoo community has an increasingly important role to play in helping to safeguard the species.