Motherhood: What if…

Posted at 10:24 am November 12, 2010 by Becky Kier

What if San Diego Zoo polar bear Chinook gives birth to a beautiful healthy cub? What if the cub is sick or hurt just after it is born? What if Chinook doesn’t know what to do with her tiny squawking bundle? What if she can’t produce enough milk? What if the confusion of first-time motherhood is too much for Chinook to handle? How could we help? What should we do? What would we do?

Why would we even entertain such horrible thoughts? What’s with all the doom and gloom?

Realistically, these are all questions zoo keepers, animal care managers, and veterinarians must ask when a zoo animal with no maternal experience is pregnant. Although we always have high hopes that the natural maternal instinct will kick in as soon as the baby is born, we have to prepare for all scenarios. Discussions among animal care personnel eventually lead to a “birth management plan.” The plan may begin with prenatal care, housing changes, camera installation, and den provisions. Somewhere in the middle of the plan are the answers to most of those “what ifs.” We have to decide how long we will leave the new mother undisturbed. We then have to consider how we can effectively assess the condition of the baby if there is fear that the baby is not being properly nurtured. We have to plan for the extreme case of removing the baby for veterinary treatment and hand-rearing. The Zoo’s Nutrition Department and nursery staffs need to develop a hand-rearing protocol and, most importantly, come up with a proper formula replacement. We also have to think about strategies for offering supplemental feedings if the baby’s growth rate on Mom’s milk isn’t up to par.

A tiny Kalluk or Tatqiq is feed formula while in quarantine at the Zoo in 2001.

The hand-rearing portion of the plan is where I come in. I am a member of the five-person Nursery Team at the Zoo. I was one of the keepers that hand-mixed (gallons and gallons of) milk formula for the tumbling youngsters Kalluk and Tatqiq when San Diego welcomed them into our Zoo family nine years ago. It really doesn’t seem that long ago, and it’s hard to believe that Kalluk may be a dad some day! Sorry, I digress…

Anyway, in addition to getting our hand-rearing protocol in order, two members of our nursery staff were able to participate in more than just the standard preparation. Beginning last April, Joanne Mills and I were given the opportunity to be secondary polar bear keepers. How cool is that? It so happened that the nursery workload was light while the polar bear keepers were extra busy. We were quickly shown the ins and outs of exhibit cleaning, bear feeding, etc. (Oh, I could say so much about the opposite sides of the feeding spectrum: polar bears versus nursery babies. I couldn’t believe how much meat was served to polar bears each day!)

It took a whole five minutes to fall in love with the magnificent threesome. I don’t know why it took that long. We soon realized there was a huge advantage to having nursery keepers working with the polar bears at this time of year. If any of the less-than-perfect birth scenarios occurred, Chinook would already be familiar and calm with nursery keepers. If we had to step in to offer any postnatal assistance, we would already have her trust.

Now, unfortunately, it seems as if our window of possible pregnancy is closing. We’ve been so disappointed that nothing has shown up on the ultrasounds. Our high hopes have diminished. If we aren’t lucky enough to see Chinook as a mother this year, we’ll just transfer our high hopes to next year. At least we’ve gone through all the thought processes and planning stages, and we’ll definitely be ready for whatever comes our way, whenever it comes our way.

Becky Kier is a senior nursery keeper at the San Diego Zoo.

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31 Responses to “Motherhood: What if…”

  1. Michelle from Buffalo, NY says:

    Oh, a pseudo-pregnancy is such a bummer! Every morning I eagerly pull up polar cam expecting a big announcement. At least I hope Chinook remains healthy and in good spirits whatever outcome.

    PS-that pic is too adorable!

  2. Mona says:

    How are hormone testing results? Does that appear to show pregnancy still as it might have earlier? How are Chinook behaviors been? Enquiring minds would like to know. Thanks for all you do.

  3. Sue Martz says:

    Oh dang, major bummer, I was hoping we would have a cub or two soon but I guess it’s just not to be for now. Good to know you have every kind of plan worked out for the “just in case scenario”. Thanks for the update!

  4. cindy in KC says:

    Sad to hear this about chinook. I too look at the polar blog and wait to see a big announcement. Maybe the pair should have a reproductive check up like humans do just to see if all is ‘swimming’ where it should be. 🙂

  5. Kat says:

    For nothing to show up on the ultra-sound, does that still mean that you are not sure as of yet and that it still could be possible for a birth or two? How far along can a polar bear be before you see something? Are there other zoos that you can compare notes with on this issue? I know we polar bear fans are very excited, but I have to agree with #1 as long as Chinook is happy and healthy, that is all that matters. Keeping fingers crossed from Vegas that we all will have a joyous event here soon!!!

  6. Susan(UK) says:

    I’m still going to keep my fingers crossed.

  7. Debi says:

    Don’t give up faith, yet. I still strongly believe she is expecting. I can’t say why, but keep your eyes and ears ready. Don’t we still have a month to go? Could the warmth of San Diego be throwing off her bodies natural instincts to attach that egg as winter is approaching? I just can’t shake this odd feeling she is biding her time…

  8. Karen says:

    If you still cannot tell if Chinook is pregnant now, is it still possible that she is and you will not know it until she gives birth? Does Chinook show signs that she may be pregnant? At least she is healthy and that is all that matters if she is not pregnant this time.

  9. Becky Kier says:

    We definitely haven’t given up all hope. It can be difficult to see a 1-1/2 pound baby in a 650-pound mom. We just wanted to see SOMETHING that resembled a baby by now. Hormone testing has not been completed as yet. Chinook seems happy and healthy, but she’s not as quiet as we’d expect if she was “with cub.” We’re open to surprises, though!

  10. Diana S says:

    I am not giving up hope yet. But will still love Chinook, Talluk, and Tatqiq just as much even if there is no cub this year. They are still a joy to behold. But oh my, a new cub would be so delightful.

  11. Margaret says:

    I hope that Chinook is keeping her pregnancy a secret, and will still provide a holiday thrill to everyone with one or more cubs. Until it s proved impossible for her to be pregnant, we can all still hope.

  12. Dianna from Ohio says:

    Hi Becky: What a sweet job you have!! Part of the Nursery Team….. so you get to help all the babies that for some reason, their mom’s need assistance in taking care of their babies…. I was thinking that Chinook had a window sometime into December? I’m still hoping that Chinook is still with cubbies and she is just fooling everyone… maybe that new protein test could be used on her?

  13. Lainie says:

    Oh, how I’ve been waiting, and waiting for an update. Thank you Becky for THE update. I take it there are still ultrasounds being performed. We have till the 15th of December, if I remember the last update on Chinook correctly ? Could it be still possible that it’s still just to small to see untill it gets closer to said date ? And dare I say it.. is it possible, that Chinook cannot become pregnant, and she has reached that age (if there is an age for polar bears) where she is past conception age? And dare I say this, but is it possible that it’s not Chinook, and it may in fact be Kalluk -can I say this-, shooting blanks ? Since Tatqiq is still young, is it possible that she would maybe be the next candidate for another bear ? Thanx, and again, if there is no cub(s), although we will be a bit bummed, we fully understand, it was just not meant to be. =( Thanx so much Becky !!

  14. C.R.Worgan says:

    Hi I am only 11 but you guys give me hope. I have fallowed Yun Zi since he was born. I now hope I can fallow Chinook through her pregnancy and watch hopfuly (I hope it’s a girl) her grow up. I hope Chinook is pregnant!

  15. Becky Kier says:

    #12, Dianna: Yes I do have a sweet job. Always challenging; always interesting. As for Chinook, we DO have until mid-December to “call it” one way or the other.

    #13, Lainie: Chinook is older than many first-time moms, but is still of prime breeding age for a polar bear. And there is NO WAY that Kalluk’s manliness is in question. His testosterone levels are off the charts! It’s possible that Tatqiq could become part of the breeding program, but I’d like to see her stay in San Diego with her brother. They love each other so much.

  16. Tillie says:

    Let’s not give up hope! Knut was born on December 5 and the Italian bear that lived with him for a while was born the week before, so there’s still hope!

  17. cindy in KC says:

    3:00 pst- watching WW swimming smackdown! They almost look like they are dancing at times or doing aerobics with each other. 🙂

  18. cindy in KC says:

    5:00 pst- swimming over- now both bro and sis are lounging in the freshly dug out

    moat of dirt- question- do they ever get back in water while that dirty???

  19. Jodie says:

    I’m impressed with the extent of preparation that all of you have trained “in the event of if”. Awesome!

  20. Lisa in Colorado says:

    What an adorable picture! I’m still hopping for a cub. My birthday is Dec. 2nd. I’m Hoping for an adorable birthday present.

  21. Lainie says:

    #15 – Becky – Thanks for responding to my questions. I had to lauqh, at your response. I would hope that Tatqiq would never leave the SDZ either. I love our bears too much, and I know separating her and her brother would never be in question. Thankfully ! And I did not know Chinook was still at prime breeding age.

    Fingers and toes still crossed…SDZ, the animals and their keepers are too awesome. I would love for us to be able to have a cub(s). Thanks again Becky for responding !! =)

  22. Becky Kier says:

    #18 Cindy: They do get back in the water when they’re “that dirty.” They look like grizzleys going in and look like polars coming out. It creates extra work for the Zoo’s water quality staff, but as long as the bears have fun, it’s all OK!

  23. TonyMo says:

    ok look for all of your worying ….,the answer too all the “what if’s” is simple… and now would be the perfect time to do it cuz it’s all torn up anyways….

    Run a phone line down to Bai. problem solved. Worlds greatest mother just down the hill.

  24. barbara says:

    Im hopeing that your bears at the zoo who never knew dangers of the wild except befor they were found so many years ago would act different maybe mothers in the wild have to be more quite like you said due to other bears that might be a danger to a mom and or new cubs your bears have not known really danger. Im hopeing that chinooks behavior is different than what you expect is because she knows that all her keepers are there for her and she doesnt feel apprehensive I have watched her ultra sound she totally trusts no fear at all do I see in her Im not giving up hope! We still have a month dont we best regards to all her keepers and helpers rest easy she will do fine we all will continue to support polar bear plunge no matter what happens. Barbara!

  25. Cathy Shorter says:

    Dear Becky – Well of course you have a way with words as you describe a nursery keeper dreams & schemes, since obviously you have such a great love for the AWESOME THREESOME!! 5 minutes ~ I have a feeling it was sooner than that they stole your heart. What a great privilege and tremendous responsibility you have in delivering “our Bears”, Kalluk, Tatqiq & Chinook a wild home in a controlled environment. You have all done a fabulous job giving them every substrate and fuel to encourage natural wild behavior.

    I have only found the Polar Bear Cam 4-5 weeks now and these Polar Bears have become the love of my life too. I am going to adopt each of them to help you with your work. You would not believe the incredible photos I have been able to take from my screen of them throughout the day enjoying the home you have given them.

    Thank you Becky, the other keepers and the SAN DIEGO ZOO! Fingers crossed for the future…


  26. Grace says:

    It looks like Tatqiq who is lying on top of the rock ledge surrounded by “toys”. One of them looks like a construction cone??!! My! The bears sure like to sleep with their favorite bedding items! Just too adorable to see even though they are full-grown adults!

  27. Marie says:

    I never knew polars loved rolling around and sleeping in dirt. Kalluk looks positively brown. Tatqiq, being the princess that she is, still resembles a polar bear although she is dirty as well. They’re asleep in the dirt without a care in the world. 🙂

    I’m still keeping all fingers and toes crossed for Chinook.

  28. Steve in Denver says:

    Hi Beck..

    If, dare I say, Chinook is not with cub, and you have made that determination, how soon until we will see her back in the exhibit playing with her friends again? And again…thank you all for the hard work you do with our wonderful bears

  29. Becky Kier says:

    #28 Steve: The threesome would be reunited as soon as the gestation window is tightly shut. We’d want to be completely sure that a cub has no chance of showing itself. If there is no cub (boo hoo), Chinook, Kalluk, and Tatqiq will most likely be together before the end of December.

    Sincere thanks to all of you for your kind words about the work we do. The animals are the best, and they make us look good.

  30. Chari Mercier says:

    Hi! Your article reminded me of Klondike and Snow, the 2 polar bear cubs that were born at Denver Zoo in the early 1990s, rejected by their mom, and hand raised by the keepers there. PBS did a special program back then about these 2 polar bear cubs and their first year of life. That was fascinating to watch these Denver Zoo keepers work hard to give them the right formula to drink, get them thru different stages of growth/development/illnesses, and get them thru that first year successfully. Now, these 2 polar bears are at Sea World Orlando, FL being the great ambassadors for polar bears that they are now.

    Chinook not pregnant AGAIN?? BUMMER!!! I was sooo hoping to see one or two baby polar bear cubs on the polar bear cam this year! Oh well, better luck next year! Maybe you can run some tests on both Chinook and Kalluk to see if 1. Kalluk is producing enough sperm, and 2. if Chinnok is really able to produce enough eggs for a possible pregnancy. That maybe difficult to do, but you can only try that and see what you all can find out about these 2 bears. That should be a great research project about the polar bear reproduction process.

    Well, gonna go for now. Will check back later.

    Chari Mercier 🙂

    St. Pete, FL

  31. JoGGer says:

    You know I maybe crediting our bears with TOO MUCH intelligence but I swear they’re planning a way of getting into the reindeer next door !!