Polar Bears © Norbert Rosing/ National Geographic Stock

Being Proactive for Polar Bears

Karla Dutton, Alaska Program Director

Rain falls in the polar bear exhibit as Alaska Zoo staff and others mill around waiting for the tranquilizer dart to take effect. Today, we are using a regularly scheduled veterinary exam to test out an important new tool to protect polar bears.

We know that increased shipping and oil and gas development in a warming arctic increase the real chance of an oil spill someday. When that happens, most of the focus will largely be on people, safety and structures, but we want to make sure that arctic marine animals like polar bears have a fighting chance to survive a spill too. So we provided funding to create something new: polar bear washing tables for trained responders to clean polar bears in the event of an oil spill. Removing oil from a polar bear’s fur is important because the bear may ingest some of the toxic oil when they clean themselves or when they feed their cubs. Washing tables allow the responders to safely elevate the bear so that all oiled areas can be cleaned. Cleaning a large animal on the ground does not work since the oil that is removed can recoat the bear. The washing table also has a mesh covering that lets the oiled wash water drain off into a collection container for treatment so that it doesn’t rinse back onto the ground and contaminate arctic habitat.

This table will be an important new tool in oil spill response in the Arctic (©John Gomes/www.akjohn.com)

This table will be an important new tool in oil spill response in the Arctic (©John Gomes/www.akjohn.com)

So back to the zoo: We carefully move the sedated polar bear to the washing table in a sling like those used by polar bear biologists in remote, ice-covered arctic areas – it works beautifully! The veterinarians carefully position the polar bear on table and examine her. In the field, that same table can be used as a safe and secure platform to remove oil and provide medical care to polar bears caught in a spill. The tables are designed so that water and oil passes through the stainless wire mesh into a holding tank for proper treatment. The table legs have wheels to make it easy to move around and they can hold up to 4,000 pounds!

These one-of-a-kind washing tables are valuable pieces of equipment that will be stationed on the North Slope of Alaska with other wildlife saving equipment for use by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service staff and other responders who work year-round to prepare for oil spills. These responders are trained to integrate their activities within larger response efforts. They participate in pre-spill planning and coordination efforts of Regional Response Teams like the event held this week: A state-wide wildlife focused oil spill response drill on the North Slope of Alaska. Multiple federal and state agencies, along with other marine mammal experts and oil spill response teams, are working together to ensure we are all better coordinated and ready to go if and when the time comes. Hopefully, we will never have to experience an oil spill in the pristine and fragile ecosystems in the arctic. But if that does happen, thanks to our members’ support of our polar bear work, we are one critical step closer to being better prepared.