Md. Zoo polar bear delivers stillborn cub

December 06, 2006|By Nicole Fuller | Nicole Fuller,sun reporter

The Maryland Zoo in Baltimore's female polar bear delivered a stillborn cub over the weekend - a disappointment, but an event that raises hope for a successful birth in the future, zoo officials announced yesterday.

Alaska's handlers first glimpsed the tiny female cub about 2:30 p.m. Sunday, while watching a computer screen linked to a pair of infrared surveillance cameras monitoring her in the birthing den at the zoo. For the past four months, Alaska had been tucked away in the den in anticipation of a birth.

Since Saturday, Alaska had been pacing and squirming uncomfortably - signs that pointed to an imminent delivery. Then the cub, weighing just 423 grams (a tad less than a pound), appeared.

"We observed for a few minutes, and it was pretty clear that the cub was not responding," said Rebecca Gullott, the zoo's mammal collection and conservation manager. "We were able to move her out of the den and retrieve the cub."

Pathologists at the Johns Hopkins University confirmed the female cub was stillborn and will complete a post-mortem examination within 30 days. It is quite common, Gullott said, for first-time polar bear mothers to have stillborn cubs. Polar bears can produce from one to four cubs in a litter, but usually have twins.

Alaska and Magnet, the zoo's male bear, mated in the spring.

In late August, Alaska was placed in a birthing den even though zoo officials had no way to know conclusively that she was expecting. But after two years of breeding and no babies, the polar bears' keepers were brimming with excitement at the possibility of a cub.

The number of polar bears worldwide has been declining as natural habitats in the sub-Arctic region have diminished because of global warming. Alaska and Magnet are considered valuable for breeding - a part of the zoo's mission as a member of the Association of Zoos & Aquariums.

Since the stillbirth, Alaska has remained in the den. She will rejoin Magnet in the outside exhibit, equipped with two pools and large boulders for sunbathing and sleeping, when she indicates she is ready.

"Her behavior is pretty normal," Gullott said. "She's not showing any abnormal behaviors. She's resting. Her appetite is good. She appears to be just fine."

Despite the sad turn of events, zoo officials said they are encouraged that Alaska can become pregnant naturally.

"The first thing that this tells us is we did everything right," Gullott said. "We created a fantastic denning situation for her. So it's just a matter of time before she delivers healthy cubs. Hopefully next year."

She added, "I know the whole state of Maryland is waiting and watching."

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