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Using a bear scale.

Students weigh a bear at the Wildlife Science Center (WSC) in Forest Lake, Minnesota.

Walk on the wild side

How do you handle a wild bear or wolf? Students in this course recently found out

By Deane Morrison

March 29, 2006

On the floor by the table, a patient lies on a blanket, blindfolded. Surrounding her are several people, including a professor who searches for a leg vein to take a blood sample and a student who monitors a rectal thermometer.

"One hundred three point five," the student calls out.

"One hundred six to one hundred eight is high for a wolf," the professor replies, meaning the gray wolf under his care here at the Wildlife Science Center (WSC) in Forest Lake, Minn., is doing fine. Students have packed her inner thighs with snow to keep her temperature from climbing, a danger for a thick-furred animal lying in a heated building. And the blindfold shuts out the anxiety-provoking sight of many strange people.

The wolf is one of five that students will examine this day as part of the course "Animal handling and immobilization," offered by the fisheries, wildlife and conservation biology department in the University's College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences. The 30 or so students, including one from UMD and four from UMC, lend a hand to executive director Peggy Callahan and her staff at WSC, who are giving them a chance to help with some of the regular checkups for animals at the center.

"It's the only course I know of that offers hands-on experience with large mammals," says University professor and course leader David Smith, one of four instructors--all of whom received doctorates from the University--on hand at the WSC.

Besides gray wolves, WSC residents include red wolves, black bears, lynx, coyotes, raptors, and one friendly porcupine. The WSC began as a federally funded wolf research center, but in 1991, it changed its name and began taking in rescued birds and animals. It opened its doors to the public for educational programs in 1994 and University of Minnesota students have come here today on their spring break to gain invaluable practice.

"It's the only course I know of that offers hands-on experience with large mammals," says University professor and course leader David Smith, one of four instructors--all of whom received doctorates from the University--on hand at the WSC. The students also learn from Callahan, whose long experience handling large animals has made her an expert on the subject.

Getting the wolves inside isn't easy. Even though they live in enclosures and are used to people, they are still wild at heart and unpredictable. To immobilize the female now lying indoors, a large group of students, instructors and WSC staff wielded Y poles--long poles with padded Y-shaped ends--to keep her down while Callahan, using a syringe pole, administered ketamine, an anesthetic. It took more than 10 minutes for her to go completely under. WSC biologist Mark Beckel showed the students how to tap a wolf to ensure that the anesthetic had taken hold; then, a team of students led by University adjunct professor Glenn DelGiudice, a wildlife biologist at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, took over. They blindfolded the wolf, lifted her on a blanket and carried her indoors. Back in the exam building, our wolf is still out. DelGiudice inserts a needle in her leg, searching for a vein to take a blood sample. It will require several tries.

"Make sure after you take blood you rub it [the puncture site] vigorously so it clots and you don't get hematoma [a localized collection of blood]," he tells the students, demonstrating as he talks. He tries again and when he at last finds a vein, the blood fills the syringe very slowly.

"One hundred two point six," calls out the temperature monitor. The snow is doing its job.

A student brings a scanner. Waving the hand-held device across the wolf, the team reads her ID number from an embedded microchip. At this point, a second wolf is carried in by a team led by Terry Kreeger, a wildlife biologist and veterinarian from Wyoming. All is going well.

Meanwhile, in a holding pen some distance from the wolves, a large male black bear struggles to come to. He is a magnificent beast, black in front, fading to dark brown on the hindquarters. He lolls his large head groggily and can't quite make it to his feet. He was the first patient the students worked on this morning and the second bear wildlife student Fabiana Lima Verde has worked with. The premier bear expert on hand is David Garshelis, another adjunct professor whose primary home is the DNR. "We measured his length, weight, fat content, and muscle content," says Lima Verde. "We collected hair to extract genetic information for a database and took blood from the femoral vein in the leg. Dave [Smith] was really clear in explaining how to find a vein." (It's easy-just find the femoral artery, then look deeper.) Lima Verde, a native of Brazil, praised the instructors for imparting thorough information to the students before they got near the animals.

Student Carolyn Malcolm says she was surprised by the amount of ketamine it took to keep the bear anesthetized. "I like to work with animals in general, and this is good experience for me," she says.

For another student, James Klovstad, the best part of the course so far was the cool ways to deliver anesthetics.

"I liked learning the darting equipment," he says. "They showed us blowpipes, rifles, and CO2 rifles. Those use pressurized CO2 canisters, just like paintball guns."

Back in the examining room, it's time to weigh the wolf. Del Giudice guesses 85 pounds, a good healthy weight for the species. The team carries the wolf by her legs and neck and lays her on a canvas bag with loops. The loops are fitted over a hook on a hand-held scale, and two young men lift the scale, wolf and all.

"One hundred pounds." A big wolf. She will now receive a shot of antibiotic.

"It's one cc of antibiotic per 20 pounds," DelGiudice sings out. "So how many cc's?"

"Five," the student respond in chorus.

Three more wolves come in. Kreeger, team leader for the second wolf, presses and releases its gums. The color fades, then comes back. "That's good," he says. Healthy gums.

Besides the exams, students will administer rabies and distemper shots. By the end of the day, they'll have a wealth of experience that will stand them in good stead as they go on to careers in wildlife management, veterinary medicine, or any other animal-intensive field. Among their number today are two students from Thailand who work for the Thai Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation.

"That department was formerly the Royal Forest Department. The change came about in part through the efforts of Theeratap Prayursiddhi, a Ph.D. student of mine who is now chief technical adviser for the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment in Thailand," says Smith proudly.

It's evident that Smith, Kreeger, DelGiudice and Garshelis are having a great time at the WSC. Good friends all, they went through graduate school at the University at about the same time, and among them they've handled just about every large animal there is, from elephants and rhinos to tigers and gaurs (a large ox of Southeast Asia). It's also clear that none of the instructors can get enough of working with wild animals. Smith, who teaches a field course at the University's Cloquet Forestry Center, says he'd like to offer more opportunities like this.

"We may add another field course in the sophomore year and field experience abroad," he says. Even these days, with money tight, he sees no reason not to go for the best.

"We constantly hear about programs going down all over the country for lack of money," he says. "But some people make money in a bear market. Why shouldn't we expand while everybody else is running for cover?"