Since 1995, at least three polar bears (Ursus maritimus) have died in the area of Churchill (Manitoba, Canada) as a direct result of being suspended in a net during helicopter-assisted translocations. To assess and improve methods of suspending anesthetized polar bears, we conducted a study during November 1997 to determine the cardiopulmonary responses of eight captive polar bears to suspension by net and by sling. Each bear was anesthetized on two occasions in which the sequence of activities followed and the type of data collected was identical, with only the method of suspension differing. Control data obtained from 11 captive polar bears during 1995–96 was included in the statistical analyses of cardiopulmonary data to help clearly differentiate the cardiopulmonary effects of suspension from those of drug metabolism. Suspending polar bears above the ground by net caused acute hypertension (e.g., 17 to 49% increase in mean arterial pressure), possibly as a result of increased venous return due to body compression. Increased arousal (e.g., head, tongue, and limb movement) also occurred consistently during net-suspension and suggested a stress response. Surprisingly, most suspended bears showed little change in blood gas values, but at least one bear became hypoxemic (i.e., PaO2 < 60 mm Hg) with each method of suspension. Because of the potential health risks of hypertension and hypoxemia, we recommend modifying the method by which polar bears are suspended with the goal of reducing body compression.
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Vol. 35 • No. 3