Cutting-Edge Care for Como’s Animals

From natural birth plans to polar bear blood draws, your contributions to Como Friends make medical miracles possible at Como Zoo

The birth plan for Como Zoo’s newest zebra foal, born during the fourth of July weekend, went exactly as nature intended.

“We just showed up on Sunday morning, and there was Minnie’s new baby standing up and running all around,” says Como Zoo Senior Keeper Allison Jungheim. “Hoofstock births usually go pretty smoothly, so that’s just what we hope will happen” for new moms like Minnie and for her neighbor Thelma, a Grant’s zebra expected to give birth later this summer.

Como zookeepers trained the Galapagos tortoises to raise their shell on command for instances when they need to see under them.

Whether Mother Nature takes her course, or more medical intervention is necessary, Como Zoo’s keepers depend on a progressive behind-the-scenes animal training program to help provide specialized care to animals of all shapes and sizes. Launched in 2001 with an investment from Como Friends, operant conditioning training now engages more than 25 species at Como Zoo, from Galapagos tortoises to great apes Arlene and Kemala, the two primate infants just beginning to recognize their own names.

Did You Know?

  • Como Friends provided the funding for the progressive operant conditioning training program that now keeps more than 25 species at Como Zoo healthy and curious.
  • Gorillas at Como Zoo are trained to participate in voluntary cardiac ultrasounds providing data that helps improve the cardiac health of primates at other AZA-accredited zoos.
  • Sharing the design of Como Zoo’s special “Polar Bear Blood Cuff” has allowed other zoos to begin their own training programs to support voluntary blood draws and other non-invasive medical screens.

If you’ve ever seen Sparky the Sea Lion play with a stethoscope, then you’ve already had a glimpse of the training program in action. Using medical props like thermometers, tongue depressors and even ultrasound machines, keepers provide animals plenty of positive reinforcement during daily training sessions that can help desensitize animals to objects and machines that might otherwise cause stress.DSC05984

For instance, Markisa the orangutan grew so accustomed to voluntary ultrasounds during her pregnancy with baby Kemala, now 18 months old, that she even presented her belly to veterinarians at the University of Minnesota to show them how her c-section scar was healing. She and the other orangutans in her troop also present themselves voluntarily for their annual flu shots, preventive medicine that might be stressful if they weren’t accustomed to seeing syringes during some of their daily training sessions.

“From the beginning, Como Friends’ supporters have been committed to elevating the animal care at Como Zoo, and the training program has been critical to some of the success stories we’ve seen over the last few years,” says Jackie Sticha, president of Como Friends. “Whether it’s making sure that zoo moms like Minnie have the extra diet and post-natal care they need, or that our older sea lions get regular visits from the ophthalmologist, contributions to Como Friends provide that extra care and feeding at Como Zoo.”

Two recent beneficiaries of Como Zoo’s training program are Buzz and Neil, the twin polar bears who live in Polar Bear Odyssey. Now aged 20 years, the bears have already outlived the average lifespan of polar bears in the wild, and face a growing risk of arthritis and other age-related conditions. That’s why aquatics keepers at Como came up with a progressive plan to train the bears to give blood voluntarily, a trained behavior that can provide veterinarians a helpful glimpse of their internal health.

Neil was the first to try the new behavior in March 2015, presenting his massive front paw through a specially design “polar bear cuff” built into the training station at Polar Bear Odyssey. Senior keeper Allison Jungheim was then able to perform a voluntary blood draw while the polar bear snacked on frozen lard—a favorite treat. “Of course, we’d been planning for this moment for years, and we’d trained him for this behavior for months, but the first time it really worked, I did think, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m actually getting blood from a polar bear’s paw.”

Como Zoo is only the second zoo in North America to successfully train polar bears to participate in this simple, non-invasive health screening tool. (Twin brother Buzz followed suit a few months later.) “Looking at their blood values is one of the best ways of understanding their overall health and what’s going on internally,” says Jungheim. “For the larger polar bear community, it’s also important because it allows Como Zoo to participate in conservation research and share what we know about their health.” In fact, Como’s aquatics staff have already shared the design of the special “blood cuff” built into the public training area at Polar Bear Odyssey to help other zoos achieve the same results.

The polar bear cuff and the training that supports it also made it possible for Como Zoo to take a voluntary x-ray of Buzz’s front paw, when keepers noticed he was limping. “We worried that he may have broken a bone in his foot or was developing arthritis but the x-ray suggested he was probably playing too hard the night before and just strained a muscle,” says Jungheim. “Our goal is to help these polar bears stay nice and healthy for a lot of years to come.’’

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2 Comments

  • Catherine Harrison says:

    i was part of a small group from RidgePointe Senior Residence that visited before hours, several weeks ago, and enjoyed seeing the zoo, that I’d visited many times over the years, behind the scenes. It was an informative, and enjoyable tour, thanks especially to our guide, Laura!

    You’re doing wonderful work, and I hope funding allows you to keep it up!

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