NOBORIBETSU, Japan - A veterinarian at a bear park in Hokkaido has devised a method to safely collect blood samples from bears without using anesthetic. The secret? Honey.
To take blood samples from a bear, a zoo usually has put the animal to sleep with large doses of an anesthetic, which risks giving them a lethal overdose.
Noboribetsu Bear Park hopes to be able to conduct periodical medical checkups on about 100 bears at the facility using the new method.
The method involves a keeper distracting the bear with honey, while a vet collects blood samples by inserting a syringe needle between its claws when it places its paws on the fence of the cage. Park staff trained a bear over three weeks to bear the pain by feeding it honey while a needle was inserted into one of its paws.
Credit for the approach goes to Naoya Matsumoto, a 26-year-old veterinarian at the park who was distressed by the sudden death of a brown bear last February.
An autopsy revealed the bear had suffered from a liver disease. "The bear could've been saved if we had done routine blood tests," he said.
Thanks to the blood tests, the honey-loving black bear was found to have high levels of neutral fat.
The keepers adjusted its diet and brought its levels down to healthy readings. Another black bear as well as a brown bear are now receiving similar training.
Facilities across the nation employ such husbandry training, which teaches animals to take up postures and behaviours favourable for veterinarians.
For example, Sapporo Maruyama Zoo gathered blood from a polar bear without the need for an anesthetic or physical restraints. Ueno Zoo saw similar success with a giant panda.
"Anesthesia and restraints present risks for humans as well as bears, which prevented us from giving them routine blood tests," Matsumoto said.
"So it [the new honey method] will be very helpful in managing the health of the bears."