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Home* News and Stories → Lethal anaes­the­ti­sa­ti­on of polar bear cri­ti­cis­ed by aut­ho­ri­ties

Lethal anaes­the­ti­sa­ti­on of polar bear cri­ti­cis­ed by aut­ho­ri­ties

A polar bear was anaes­the­ti­sed and flown out from the Lon­gye­ar­by­en area by the Sys­sel­man­nen ear­lier this year, on 30 Janu­ar. The bear, a young fema­le of only 62 kg, died during the flight. Shock cau­sed by phy­si­cal stress in com­bi­na­ti­on with the anaes­the­ti­sa­ti­on was later iden­ti­fied as the cau­se of death. The bear had been cha­sed away from Lon­gye­ar­by­en by heli­c­op­ter for more than two hours befo­re it was put into deep sleep.

Now the case was cri­ti­cis­ed by Mat­til­syn­et, the Nor­we­gi­an aut­ho­ri­ty for food safe­ty, which is also respon­si­ble for ani­mal wel­fa­re inclu­ding anaes­the­ti­sa­ti­on (immo­bi­li­sa­ti­on by means of medi­ca­ti­on) of wild ani­mals, as Sval­bard­pos­ten descri­bes with a long artic­le. This is some­thing that hap­pens often in Spits­ber­gen, most­ly in con­nec­tion with rese­arch, some­ti­mes also when the poli­ce (Sys­sel­man­nen) hand­les polar bear near Lon­gye­ar­by­en. The Nor­we­gi­an ani­mal wel­fa­re law is also in force in Spits­ber­gen, but not so the ani­mal health per­so­nell law (Dyrehel­se­per­so­nell­oven). The appli­ca­ti­on of its main prin­ci­ples is, howe­ver, deman­ded by the ani­mal wel­fa­re law.

Mat­til­syn­et has found seve­ral points of cri­ti­cism, also men­tio­ning a lack of com­pe­tence. One point of gene­ral cri­ti­cism is the lack of know­ledge-based rou­ti­nes for cat­ching (anaes­the­ti­sing) polar bears; some­thing that repre­sen­ta­ti­ves of the Nor­we­gi­an Polar Insti­tu­te, which is mana­ging the anaes­the­ti­sa­ti­on, do not agree with. Both the Nor­we­gi­an Polar Insti­tu­te, repre­sen­ted by polar bear rese­ar­cher Jon Aars (who was not invol­ved in the ope­ra­ti­on on 30 Janu­ary) and the Sys­sel­man­nen, repre­sen­ted by envi­ron­men­tal offi­cer Mor­ten Wede­ge, have repli­ed to the cri­ti­cism in Sval­bard­pos­ten.

Ano­ther point of cri­ti­cism is the lack of con­side­ra­ti­on of the phy­si­cal para­me­ters of this par­ti­cu­lar bear befo­re the anaes­the­ti­sa­ti­on. Is is in the natu­re of the pro­cess that a polar bear can not be weig­hed befo­re anaes­the­ti­sa­ti­on. The one that died in the given case weig­hed only 62 kg and it appears likely that this may have con­tri­bu­ted to the lethal out­co­me. Addi­tio­nal­ly, the­re was no vete­ri­na­ry-medi­cal emer­gen­cy equip­ment available and no asso­cia­ted com­pe­tence to hand­le any emer­gen­cy that might occur under anaes­the­ti­sa­ti­on. Accor­ding to the rep­ly to the cri­ti­cism by the Nor­we­gi­an Polar Insti­tu­te, this should, based on expe­ri­ence from thou­sands of anaes­the­ti­sa­ti­ons of polar bears, not have neces­sa­ry. But sci­en­ti­fic anaes­the­ti­sa­ti­ons under much more con­trol­led cir­cum­s­tances, in day­light, with smal­ler heli­c­op­ters and as a mat­ter of choice in each indi­vi­du­al case, so one may ask if this kind of expe­ri­ence is a good basis for decis­ion­ma­king in a case like the one given here.

But this is, as far as known, not fur­ther con­side­red by Mat­til­syn­et. Respon­si­ble regi­on lea­der in north Nor­way Hil­de Haug empha­si­zes that it is their main con­cern to make sure that such cases do not hap­pen again by impro­ving rele­vant rou­ti­nes. In case of future recur­rence, Haug does not want to exclude use of legal­ly bin­ding steps.

Young polar bear

Young polar bear tog­e­ther with its mother. The litt­le bear was about 20 months old at the time the pic­tu­re was taken and its weight was likely well abo­ve 60 kg.

In the Sval­bard­pos­ten artic­le, two vete­ri­na­ri­ans give some inte­res­t­ing insight. It is the­se two who come into ques­ti­on as vets who have pre­scri­bed the medi­ca­ti­on that was used to anaes­the­ti­se („immo­bi­li­ze“) the bear on 30 Janu­ary. But this did not hap­pen in con­nec­tion with the given case: becau­se of the regu­lar use of the drug, most­ly in con­nec­tion with rese­arch and occa­sio­nal­ly in the con­text of poli­ce ope­ra­ti­ons, the Nor­we­gi­an Polar Insti­tu­te has a stock in Lon­gye­ar­by­en. In prin­ci­ple, the pre­scrib­ing vete­ri­na­ri­an remains respon­si­ble for the use of the drug in each case, but he/she is usual­ly in prac­ti­ce not invol­ved. Legal­ly, a vet can let a hel­per hand­le the actu­al use of the drug if respon­si­ble. But none of the two vets was cont­ac­ted in con­nec­tion with the ope­ra­ti­on on 30 Janu­ary, and one of them sta­tes that he would have denied use of a drug pre­scri­bed by him in this case.

It is, howe­ver, uncer­tain who of the two actual­ly pre­scri­bed the batch that was used then. Both assu­me that it was not from their respec­ti­ve pre­scrip­ti­on.

It should also be noti­ced that shoo­ting the bear direct­ly would have been a likely alter­na­ti­ve, from the per­spec­ti­ve of the Sys­sel­man­nen.

It is ano­ther aspect that the actu­al medi­ca­ti­on may have been out of date, but this is unli­kely, accor­ding to the Nor­we­gi­an Polar Insti­tu­te, and unli­kely to have made a dif­fe­rence, had it inde­ed been the case.

In the press releases during and after the inci­dent, the Sys­sel­man­nen empha­si­zed repea­ted­ly the pre­sence and direct invol­vement of „polar-bear pro­fes­sio­nal spe­cia­list com­pe­tence“ pro­vi­ded by the Nor­we­gi­an Polar Insti­tu­te in the ope­ra­ti­on. No names or pro­fes­si­ons are given, but vete­ri­na­ri­ans are usual­ly not direct­ly invol­ved. Both vete­ri­na­ri­ans who pre­scri­bed the drug expres­sed that they would have app­re­cia­ted to be cont­ac­ted, but this did not hap­pen. Even if it may be impos­si­ble to fly a vet up to Lon­gye­ar­by­en from Trom­sø or else­whe­re in main­land Nor­way in time for such an ope­ra­ti­on, advi­se by tele­pho­ne could have made a dif­fe­rence.

Ever­y­bo­dy invol­ved knows the legal and prac­ti­cal com­ple­xi­ty of such a situa­ti­on and the dif­fi­cul­ty of making decis­i­ons under time pres­su­re and in a situa­ti­on of stress. But it appears fair to con­clude: anaes­the­ti­sing a lar­ge ani­mal such as a polar bear just after having expo­sed it to gre­at phy­si­cal stress over more than 2 hours, wit­hout kno­wing its weight and phy­si­cal con­di­ti­on and wit­hout having vete­ri­na­ry-medi­cal emer­gen­cy equip­ment and a vete­ri­na­ri­an available – that is not exact­ly what many will con­sider respon­si­ble hand­ling of a strict­ly pro­tec­ted ani­mal.



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last modification: 2020-06-17 · copyright: Rolf Stange