Point Defiance Zoo’s polar bear Blizzard teaches a lot while getting his annual exam

By Christine Clarridge – Seattle Times staff reporter
See article for some great photos

It takes more than a dozen people to roll over a 900-pound sleeping polar bear.

That’s one of the things folks learn when they take care of Blizzard, who has been living at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium in Tacoma since he was an orphaned cub.

Blizzard, who is 25 and considered old for a polar bear, had his annual medical exam last week. 

He was put under general anesthesia and his vet team of five women did as much as they could in a few hours. They checked his blood, took X-rays, did a full exam, gave him his vaccines, trimmed his nails, cleaned his teeth, groomed his hair and collected some samples. 

Through samples of his fur, Blizzard is giving information about nutrition and hair growth rate to University of Washington Ph.D. student Jenny Stern, who will use the data to help develop nutritional ecology studies in the wild.
“We’re always learning a lot from Blizzard,” said Malia Somerville, the zoo’s curator of marine mammals and birds.
For example, he taught them that a new kind of tracking device that seemed really promising because it attaches to a bear’s fur easily also can come off easily. 

A crimp plate-style tracker, used by Polar Bears International to follow bears and study the impact of climate change on their population, was attached to Blizzard near the nape of his neck during his exam, Somerville said.

But it came off the next day. So the design can be tweaked or researchers can use larger but more secure tracking devices. 

Blizzard has also taught Sheriden Ploof, Cindy Roberts and Stephanie Rager, the animal-care trio who work with him daily, a “tremendous amount” about how polar bears socialize, what behaviors they exhibit during different seasons and how their weight and metabolisms fluctuate.

He’s taught them, too, that he could be trained to cooperate with medical procedures and allow blood to be taken, say, which means he can get faster care if needed. 

“Blizzard has taught us that research or behaviors we might have thought were impossible to train are actually things that are very attainable,” Ploof said. “He has taught us to look at him differently than any other polar bear we work with. Because we can’t interact with him without a barrier, we are more creative as an animal care team. He’s a great bear!”

Blizzard, who is in excellent shape for his age, according to head veterinarian Karen Wolf, can be seen during the zoo’s open hours, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily.

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