KC Pets

KC Zoo turns to Elvis the Shawnee beagle, who can sniff out pregnant polar bears

Updated: 2013-11-05T15:44:11Z

By MARÁ ROSE WILLIAMS

The Kansas City Star

Elvis the beagle got his start hunting rabbits in the Ozarks. Now he’s doing scientific research in Shawnee for zoos throughout the U.S. and Canada. Elvis, it turns out, can detect pregnancy in polar bears.

“He’s gotten pretty good at it,” Elvis’ owner, Matt Skogen, said Monday afternoon.

With an accuracy rate so far of better than 97 percent, Elvis has been right just about as often as an over-the-counter home pregnancy test is for humans. And that has the Kansas City Zoo eager to find out what Elvis has to say about whether its female polar bear, Berlin, is with cub.

The Kansas City Zoo was one of 14 zoos that submitted fecal samples for a study that should determine exactly how good Elvis is at sniffing out pregnant polar bears. Last week, Elvis smelled 34 samples, two from each of 17 polar bears in U.S. and Canadian zoos that mated this last spring and are potentially pregnant.

No matter what Elvis determines on Berlin, Kansas City zookeepers will continue to care for her as if she has a cub on the way.

It all started about a year ago for Elvis, when Skogen got a call from an animal conservation scientist at the Cincinnati Zoo, asking whether he could train a dog to sniff out the proteins found in pregnant polar bears’ fecal samples.

Skogen, a former canine handler with the Overland Park Police Department, has been training dogs to detect bombs, drugs and bedbugs at IronHeart High Performance Working Dogs in Shawnee since 1998. He and his dogs work closely with the Federal Reserve Bank and the Department of Homeland Security.

But the zoo request was something new.

“This is the first time sniffer dogs have been used in biomedical research as it relates to any wildlife species, making this project truly one of a kind,” Erin Curry said in a statement. Curry is studying polar bear reproduction at the Center for Conservation and Research of Endangered Wildlife in Cincinnati.

The center’s website says that traditional methods for detecting pregnancy, such as progesterone monitoring and ultrasound examination, are not effective at diagnosing pregnancy in polar bears, so researchers had to get creative.

Curry got the idea of turning to canines after reading about dogs being used to detect cancer.

If a dog could accurately detect pregnancy, it would be extremely helpful for zoos to isolate and manage the care of the pregnant female. November and December are birthing months for the massive bears, so zoos closely monitor the threatened species by camera 24/7 in anticipation of a birth.

“Elaborate measures have to be taken to ensure the safety of both mom and potential cubs,” said Randy Wisthoff, the director of the Kansas City Zoo.

All this makes knowing about the difficult and delicate condition as soon as possible really important, and that makes Elvis a hot commodity, Skogen said.

To train the now 2-year-old beagle, Skogen started with Elvis smelling fecal samples only from pregnant polar bears and rewarding him with a treat every time he indicated he had gotten a whiff.

That gave Elvis a baseline. Then he sniffed samples from non-pregnant polar bears so he could learn the difference. Then he got a shot at both kinds but received treats only for detecting the samples from pregnant bears.

Skogen said he’s not sure exactly what it is that Elvis smells. But he knows that of more than 2,000 proteins in polar bear feces, only five are consistent with pregnancy.

“In the beginning, Elvis was getting 200 (samples) a day,” Skogen said. “But he enjoys it. You can tell because he just wags his tail when he’s doing it.”

Skogen started the training with two dogs, Elvis and a border collie, “but apparently Elvis was better at it,” Skogen said. “The other dog was guessing too much.”

Skogen has trained a lot of scent-detecting dogs. A few years ago, Coco, whose specialty was bedbugs, was in pretty high demand.

“But the attention that Elvis is getting now is hitting global proportions,” said Skogen, who said his dogs have sold for as much as $15,000.

Elvis is the most valuable dog Skogen has trained. Although he’s not for sale, Skogen said he would put his value at about $25,000.

“Elvis is the king.”

The Star’s Donald Bradley contributed to this report. To reach Mará Rose Williams, call 816-234-4419 or send email to mdwilliams@kcstar.com.

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