Since the bears chose to spend hot days indoors, I took the opportunity to do some medical behavior training with them behind-the-scenes. I worked closely with Billie Jean and Quito to begin to get them accustomed to receiving injections while they are awake. Participation in this training is voluntary, and I make the experience as positive as possible by offering them mixed nuts (a favorite treat) as a reward for participating. This helps build the bears’ trust in me and makes the process of receiving an injection less stressful for everyone involved. On the days when they do not feel like participating, they are free to spend their time doing other things.
Another medical behavior we routinely practice with Billie Jean is ultrasound training, which enables us to closely monitor cub growth and development in the event she becomes pregnant. When she had her first few litters of cubs, she participated in ultrasound training. Then, two years ago, she became ill and no longer wanted to participate with the veterinary team but would still participate with me. It took us some time to build Billie Jean’s confidence back up, but I am happy to say that she has been consistently participating in ultrasounds over the past year.
Billie Jean’s re-mastery of this training happened at just the right time. In April, her behavior indicated that she was ready to breed. Billie Jean became very sweetly tempered toward Quito. She would sit calmly at the “howdy” door that separates their enclosures, make cueing noises at him, licking his nose and trying to touch him. As soon as we saw this, we put them in the same enclosure, and they bred.
Since then, she has not appeared to go into estrus — a hopeful indication that she may be pregnant or pseudopregnant. We continue to monitor the hormones in her urine and feces as part of our ongoing reproductive study. At the moment, it is too early to tell if or when we will have cubs this year, but we are keeping our fingers crossed!
A great way to keep up with Andean bear happenings is to come to our daily keeper talks at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. Billie Jean and Quito are most active on days where the weather is nice and cool, so my tip is to plan your visit to the Zoo accordingly. I look forward to answering all of your burning questions about these fascinating bears!
This story appears in the October 2019 issue of National Zoo News.