KC Zoo uses beagle to detect possible Berlin pregnancy - WNEM TV 5

KC Zoo uses beagle to detect possible Berlin pregnancy

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(AP Photo/Orlin Wagner). Elvis, a 2-year-old beagle, sniffs polar bear protein samples at Iron Heart Performance Dog Center in Shawnee, Kan., Monday, Oct. 28, 2013. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner). Elvis, a 2-year-old beagle, sniffs polar bear protein samples at Iron Heart Performance Dog Center in Shawnee, Kan., Monday, Oct. 28, 2013.
(AP Photo/Orlin Wagner). Elvis, a 2-year-old beagle, sniffs polar bear protein samples at Iron Heart Performance Dog Center in Shawnee, Kan., Monday, Oct. 28, 2013. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner). Elvis, a 2-year-old beagle, sniffs polar bear protein samples at Iron Heart Performance Dog Center in Shawnee, Kan., Monday, Oct. 28, 2013.
(AP Photo/Orlin Wagner). Amy Grandgenett handles Elvis, a 2-year-old beagle, while sniffing polar bear protein samples at Iron Heart Performance Dog Center in Shawnee, Kan., Monday, Oct. 28, 2013. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner). Amy Grandgenett handles Elvis, a 2-year-old beagle, while sniffing polar bear protein samples at Iron Heart Performance Dog Center in Shawnee, Kan., Monday, Oct. 28, 2013.
(AP Photo/Orlin Wagner). Elvis, a 2-year-old beagle, sniffs polar bear protein samples at Iron Heart Performance Dog Center in Shawnee, Kan., Monday, Oct. 28, 2013. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner). Elvis, a 2-year-old beagle, sniffs polar bear protein samples at Iron Heart Performance Dog Center in Shawnee, Kan., Monday, Oct. 28, 2013.
(AP Photo/Orlin Wagner). Elvis, a 2-year-old beagle, enjoys a moment with Erin Curry at Iron Heart Performance Dog Center in Shawnee, Kan., Monday, Oct. 28, 2013. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner). Elvis, a 2-year-old beagle, enjoys a moment with Erin Curry at Iron Heart Performance Dog Center in Shawnee, Kan., Monday, Oct. 28, 2013.
KANSAS CITY, MO (KCTV/AP) -

The Kansas City Zoo has joined other zoos from around the country to find out whether a beagle named Elvis can let them know when their polar bears are pregnant.

The 2-year-old has been specially trained for a year by a Shawnee, KS, handler who has taught dogs to sniff out everything from explosives to bed bugs. A Cincinnati Zoo animal conservation scientist had the idea after reading about studies on using dogs to detect cancer.

Elvis has been checking out samples of 22 female bears from 14 zoos, while his handler logs his reactions.

The Kansas City Zoo submitted feces from Berlin to be a part of this study.

"While there is no other test for polar bear pregnancy, this study is part of the research mission the Kansas City Zoo strives to be a part of. Whether the result is positive or negative we will continue to care for Berlin as we have been – as though she may be pregnant," the zoo said in a written statement.

Kansas City Zoo officials said Berlin is being housed in her "quiet, behind-the-scenes area" where "denning" can take place. Nikita, the 6-year-old male bear, had been pestering this summer the 23-year-old Berlin, and she was moved to give her more alone time and make her comfortable if she has cubs. The two bears mated this spring.

"Polar bears can project pregnancy-type behaviors even though they may not be pregnant. Either way, zoo keepers will continue to care for Berlin as though she is with cub," the zoo said.

Confirming pregnancies of the massive bears, a threatened species, has been difficult, and zoo officials say knowing can help make sure they and the mama bears are ready for birthing and raising cubs. They separate them from males, get them into dens with extra bedding, step up video-camera monitoring, and line up staff and volunteers for 24-hour "cub watches" later.

"It's always nice to know in advance," said Randi Meyerson of the Toledo Zoo, who coordinates polar bear species survival planning for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. She praised the beagle project as "thinking outside the box" to provide a potentially important new tool. It's non-invasive and simple for zookeepers, who pick up fecal samples for Elvis to check out.

"We didn't even know if this was possible," said Matt Skogen, a former police officer who runs Ironheart High Performance Working Dogs in Shawnee. He was intrigued when Erin Curry, a post-doctoral fellow at the Cincinnati Zoo's Center for Conservation & Research of Endangered Wildlife, reached out for someone willing to test the idea after the center identified proteins present only in pregnant bears' samples.

Skogen started with samples of bears that had already delivered babies, and from some known not to be pregnant because they hadn't mated. He also tried training a border collie for the bear pregnancy test but soon determined that Elvis, a former Ozarks rabbit hunter, was more adept.

"He was very methodical," Skogen said. "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 Curry drove out a cooler full of current 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.

Results from the Elvis study will be shared once received, which could be in a matter of days. But the "will she or won't she?" question will continue until we see the cub or cubs with our own watchful eyes.

Curry said she will inform the other zoos whether Elvis predicts they'll be hearing the pitter-patter of little paws later this year.

Meyerson, whose Toledo Zoo produced two of the only three cubs that were born in U.S. zoos last year, recommends that zoos continue monitoring and have female bears go into dens if they have mated, even if Elvis' new sniff test indicates they aren't pregnant.

Nikita's two half sisters, who were born just a few days after he was at the Toledo Zoo, are thought to be pregnant. They have been moved into separate private denning quarters at the zoo in Columbus, OH, as the male bear remains on public display.

Polar bears have complicated reproductive cycles, and zoos have found that false pregnancies are common. Better results from captive breeding of polar bears can help zoo scientists learn more about their reproduction and also help public awareness. With the long-term survival of polar bears believed to be under threat by climate change impacts on icy habitats, species advocates such as Polar Bears International say zoo bears can play important roles.

"They serve as ambassadors for their species, and there are studies that can be done in zoos that would be impossible in the wild," spokeswoman Barbara Nielsen said.

Copyright 2013 KCTV (Meredith Corp.) and the Associated Press.  All rights reserved.

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