Zoos around the country will soon find out whether a beagle can let them know if their polar bears are pregnant.
Two-year-old Elvis has been specially trained for a year by handler Matt Skogen, who has taught dogs to sniff out such things as explosives and bedbugs. A Cincinnati Zoo animal conservation scientist got the idea after reading about studies that used dogs to detect cancer.
Confirming pregnancies of the massive bears, a threatened species, has been difficult. Zoo officials say that knowing can help make sure they and the mama bears are ready for the cubs’ arrival. Zoos separate pregnant bears from males, put them in dens with extra bedding and step up video-camera monitoring.
Randi Meyerson of the Toledo Zoo praised the beagle project. The process is simple for zookeepers, who pick up samples of bear poop for Elvis to check out.
Skogen, who runs Ironheart High Performance Working Dogs in Shawnee, Kansas, started with samples from bears that had already delivered babies and from some known not to be pregnant because they hadn’t mated.
“He was very methodical,” Skogen said of Elvis. “You could tell he was really running it through the think tank.”
Rewarded with food and getting to play with his favorite squeaky duck toy, Elvis trained for months and was alerting to samples of previously pregnant bears with near-perfect accuracy before Erin Curry of the Cincinnati Zoo delivered a cooler full of samples last week.
She watched as Elvis reacted to a control sample of a bear that had already delivered.
“He sat right down. I thought, ‘Whew, this works!’ ” Curry said.
Elvis has been examining samples from 22 female bears from 14 zoos while Skogen logs his reactions. Zoos will soon learn whether Elvis predicts they’ll be hearing the pitter-patter of little paws later this year.