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 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.