WSU attempts to unlock mysteries of hibernation to help humans
Grizzly cubs might be the most adorable animals on earth — if it weren't for those claws. Tacked onto paws too big for their bodies...
Seattle Times staff reporter
PULLMAN — Grizzly cubs might be the most adorable animals on earth — if it weren't for those claws.
Tacked onto paws too big for their bodies, the 2-inch talons are a reminder that when these babies grow up, they could eat you.
That's why Washington State University veterinarian Lynne Nelson enforces one rule above all for the bears she's raising: No bite.
Being gummed by a teething 9-week-old is harmless enough, but Nelson's goal is to work with these bears when they stand 7 feet tall and weigh 400 pounds. She doesn't want them in the habit of gnawing on her.
"We've got about a year to train them," said Nelson's colleague Charlie Robbins, sitting on a laboratory floor while furballs named Peeka and Kio tumbled across his legs and nosed into his lap. "After that, they're like teenagers who don't want to listen to you."
Grizzly Research Center
Started in 1986 by WSU researcher Charlie Robbins, who specializes in bear nutrition.
Home to 12 grizzlies, including six wild adults and six young bears born in Pullman.
Includes six indoor pens that open onto a 2.2-acre yard surrounded by secure fencing.
Cost to operate: $60,000 a year.
Nelson is trying to figure out how bears slow their heartbeat to a crawl during hibernation, then rev back up in the spring. The work could shed light on human heart disease, and perhaps lead to new treatments.
The catch is that it requires ultrasound exams on hibernating bears — a risky proposition, since the animals can be grumpy when their sleep is disturbed.
So Nelson is raising bears that think of her as "Mom."
"The idea is to have these bears that are trained and habituated to humans, so we can do ultrasounds, EKGs, or collect routine blood samples without having to sedate or drug them," she said.
Peeka and Kio are her second pair of surrogate daughters.
The first, Mica and Luna, are now 2 years old and weigh more than 200 pounds. Nelson picked females because they're smaller and more social than males.
Last winter, the researchers put their plan to its most daunting test yet, creeping into Mica and Luna's concrete cage midway through their winter snooze.
The bears hadn't seen the scientists in months. They hadn't eaten in months, either.
"There was some trepidation on my part whether we'd be their next meal," Robbins said half seriously.
The young females woke and wiggled with delight to see their friends. Nelson recorded her ultrasound images, and the groggy bears went back to sleep.
Will that sweet temper persist when the grizzlies are sexually mature and strong enough to kill a person with a single swipe of a paw?
"It's a little bit scary," Nelson acknowledged. "But we hope to be able to interact with them throughout their lives."
Raising a ruckusIf it sounds like Nelson's interest in the bears is purely clinical, listen to her lull the cubs to sleep in the basement of her home.
"You're the cutest bear," she coos in baby talk to Kio, who has just finished guzzling a bottle of milk and is splayed out on her back for a tummy rub.
"Oh, I'm sorry."
This to Peeka, who barges in and starts chewing on her sister's nose.
"You're the cutest bear."
Mother bears sleep through the early part of child-rearing. They give birth in the winter to blind, hairless cubs, each the size of a Coke can. Then they barely stir for months as the babies nurse and snuggle to stay warm.
Nelson doesn't have it so easy.
Peeka and Kio demand a round-the-clock regimen of bottle feedings, potty cleanups and cuddling from their human caretakers.
Born at the research center and spirited away from their hibernating mother four weeks later, the cubs now weigh more than 15 pounds and eat every four hours.
The rest of their time is spent napping, romping or raising a ruckus.
When they're tired and cranky and fighting off sleep, the bears wobble like drunks and honk like geese.
When they're ecstatically suckling on a bottle or pacifier, they purr — though the sound is more like an outboard motor than a cat.
"Sometimes my pager goes off and I don't even hear it," Nelson said.
She tried sleeping next to the cubs at night, but their constant groans and whimpers kept her awake.
For now, the clumsy cubs are still easy to corral with wire barriers in Nelson's lab, where they spend their days, and her family room, where they spend the night. Once they figure out how to coordinate their legs well enough to get in trouble, they'll take up residence in the grizzly research center along with their blankets, stuffed teddy bears and fuzzy sleeping pads.
Big, dominant predatorsRobbins started the one-of-a-kind facility in 1986, when federal biologists were trying to find a home for two orphaned grizzlies raiding garbage cans near Glacier National Park. An irate homeowner had blasted one of the bears in the face with a shotgun.
The center's census now stands at 12 grizzlies, including six wild adults and six young bears born in Pullman.
All of the adults were problem bears that would have been killed if they hadn't found a home at WSU, Robbins said. The research they made possible is used to manage wild bear populations throughout North America.
Robbins' specialty is nutrition. He developed a technique to determine the relative amounts of vegetation, fish and meat in a bear's diet by analyzing tufts of hair. Another method allows field biologists to quickly estimate an anesthetized bear's fat stores with a hand-held meter. Robbins and his students have even analyzed bone and hair from long-dead grizzlies in museum collections to quantify the importance of salmon to bears before Northwest rivers were dammed.
It costs about $60,000 a year to run the facility. The money comes from federal and state wildlife agencies, research grants and private donations.
"Charlie's work has led to fundamental changes in the way we understand these animals and what they need to survive," said Chris Servheen, grizzly bear recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Attempting to raise and train grizzlies for hands-on research is a different kind of challenge.
Zoos often teach their animals to stand by the bars of their cage for cursory exams, or to walk onto scales, but people and bruins are always separated by a barrier.
For advice, Robbins and Nelson turned to Doug Seus, who trained Bart, the 1,500-pound grizzly star of "Legends of the Fall," "The Bear" and other movies and television shows.
Seus uses some methods that were too extreme for the WSU group, including electric collars and bear-wrestling. But they heeded his warning not to expect grizzly bears to be patient and submissive.
"They're big, dominant, top-of-the-food-chain predators," Nelson said. "They're used to taking what they want now."
The researchers, including a veterinary technician and graduate student, always work in threes when they go into the 2.2-acre outdoor yard with Mica and Luna. They watch the bears closely for subtle body language, like the way Mica pins her ears back before pouncing mischievously.
So far, the grizzlies have welcomed the humans like excited dogs, pressing against them and begging for attention.
Nelson bought stun guns at the start of the project, but hasn't taken them out of the box. Instead, she carries an air horn in case a bear's mood ever turns ugly.
"Hopefully, something that loud will startle them," she said.
Because it's so difficult to study grizzlies in the wild, researchers from across the country turn to WSU's bear center.
To accommodate that demand, Robbins is trying to raise $5 million to triple the facility's size from six cramped pens to 18 spacious ones that could house up to 22 bears. The project would also add two outdoor yards, giving the bears more room to roam.
Not only would the expansion allow more elaborate diet studies, it also would provide space for scientists to study the mysteries of hibernation without fear of becoming a midwinter snack.
Health clues from bears?An active bear has a heart rate of 80-90 beats a minute. During the winter, it drops as low as eight beats a minute.
The muscle stiffens and blood congeals to a sludgelike consistency.
In a person, these changes would signal serious heart disease. Yet bears bounce back in spring with no ill effects.
If she can figure out how they manage it, Nelson said, it may be possible to develop drugs that will help sick human hearts recover.
One hormone produced during hibernation is already being tested to slow decay and lengthen the shelf life of organs harvested for transplant.
WSU researcher David Lin is intrigued by the way bears maintain muscle tone during their long winter nap. People confined to bed and astronauts in zero gravity lose muscle tone almost immediately.
Lin implanted a tiny receiver in one bear's hind leg to measure electrical activity during hibernation.
What he discovered were waves that pulsed across the body, ruffling the animal's hair like a breeze.
It's too early to tell whether a similar pattern of electrical stimulation might help stave off atrophy in humans, but the possibility is intriguing, he said.
In the wild, hibernation allows bears to survive in a frozen world without food. Zoo animals fed year-round remain active.
Robbins induces hibernation by gradually cutting back on the amount he feeds the WSU bears and building them a cozy bed of straw. Undisturbed, they'll sleep from late October to mid-March, though some bears will occasionally shift around in their dens.
This year's warm winter woke the bears six weeks earlier than usual.
Nelson originally tried her ultrasound studies on anesthetized bears, but found the drugs affected their heart rates.
She's training her four females to climb into a metal crate for delicate procedures like blood tests or heart exams, but that conservative approach works only when the animals are active. During hibernation, the bears are too lethargic to be coaxed into the contraption.
So Nelson will continue visiting the slumbering bears throughout the four-year study — or as long as the growing grizzlies cooperate.
She and Robbins like to point out that more people in the U.S. are killed by pet tigers and even ferrets each year than by grizzly bears. But they're also well-versed in the horror stories. Like the one about the oil-company worker who punched through the snow into a grizzly den while mapping rock formations in Alaska seven years ago. The bear chomped down on his head, killing him instantly.
Which makes that "no bite" rule seem like a pretty good idea.
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