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Sniff test shows Kansas City’s polar bear probably not pregnant

Updated: 2013-11-15T03:24:34Z

By MATT CAMPBELL

The Kansas City Star

One lucky zoo will most likely be celebrating a polar bear cub this winter, but it won’t be Kansas City’s.

That is according to the nose of a beagle in Shawnee, who is getting a lot of attention for his ability to correctly tell whether a bear is pregnant by sniffing her waste.

The Kansas City Zoo was among more than a dozen to submit a stool sample as part of a study being conducted by the Cincinnati zoo. Kansas City’s female bear, Berlin, and male bear, Nikita, were observed mating this spring.

Unfortunately, the beagle, named Elvis, did not detect a pregnancy. He did, however, get quite excited by a sample from another institution, which could be very good news for it.

Elvis has demonstrated 97 percent accuracy in detecting polar bear pregnancies, according to the Cincinnati zoo’s Center for Conservation and Research of Endangered Wildlife.

Elvis works for Ironheart, a service in Shawnee that provides dogs trained to perform various jobs that involve smell detection. Owner Matt Skogen said all the tests for the polar bear project were “double blind,” meaning his staff did not know in advance whether the samples provided were controls or, possibly, from pregnant animals.

Officials at the Kansas City Zoo did not know at first that the dog involved in the test would be a local pooch.

During a test, Elvis was presented with numerous scents. If he detected certain proteins that are present in a pregnant bear’s scat, he would let his handlers know.

“He’ll stop right on the scent tube of that (positive) sample, and he’ll take a deep vacuum, and he’ll sit and keep pointing at it with his nose,” Skogen said.

The dog is not rewarded on the first pass but must repeat the performance several times. His services are potentially very useful for zoos, which have no other reliable way to determine whether a polar bear is pregnant except by waiting.

Berlin has been off exhibit in a birthing den while officials at the Kansas City Zoo kept their fingers crossed. The zoo was disappointed by the results of the sniff test but will continue to care for her as though she may be pregnant, just in case.

“Zoo keepers and our professional staff will watch her behaviors, closely monitoring her appetite and her time spent in her den,” the zoo said Thursday in a statement.

Nikita is nearly 7 years old, while Berlin is about 24. The zoo said the two would be reunited in early winter “in hopes another connection occurs.”

To reach Matt Campbell call 816-234-4902 or send email to mcampbell@kcstar.com

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