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Study: Dish soap may be liquid magic for oil-coated polar bears

Alex DeMarban
The oiled polar bear fur cleaning test is looking for variables that influence the effectiveness of a detergent commonly used in oil spill response efforts, Dawn dishwashing soap. October 25, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Oiled polar bear fur at the Alaska Zoo, part of a test being conducted by Shannon Jensen and others, designed to determine effective cleaning methods. October 25, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Alaska north slope crude oil and polar bear fur at the Alaska Zoo, part of a test being conducted by Shannon Jensen and others, designed to determine effective cleaning methods. October 25, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
The oiled polar bear fur cleaning test is looking for factors that influence the effectiveness of a cleaning agent, common dish soap. October 25, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
While dish soap can very easily remove crude oil from polar bear fur, the specific cleaning method often leaves oil underneath the top layer of fur. October 25, 2012
Loren Holmes photo

There's hope for the iconic "King of the Arctic" if polar bears are ever drenched in oil, though rescue equipment for the half-ton animal could be hard to find if there's a catastrophic spill on the North Slope, wildlife experts say. That's the good and bad news as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service updates for the first time since 1999 its plan for saving polar bears from a spill.

The effort comes as sea ice shrinks and industrial activity ramps up off Alaska's northern shores, factors that could put the already-threatened polar bear in peril.

Along with the pending update comes a novel study -- at least in the U.S. -- to analyze methods for cleaning oil from polar bear fur. Details won't be released until a final report is issued in the coming months, but researchers are willing to share one important finding: Dawn dish soap and elbow grease cuts oil out of their way. And it does so surprisingly fast.

"The biggest thing we've learned is it can be done -- you can clean oil from polar bears," said Shannon Jensen. "It's basically wash, rinse and repeat."

Painting fur with oil

The animal curator at the Alaska Zoo in Anchorage, Jensen is the "principal investigator" for the study, which includes North Slope spill responders, oil companies and others. That's a fancy term for someone who spends her day in coveralls and rubber boots, sometimes shoveling poop from pens and delivering hay for bedding. But it's serious business.

Using a polar bear skin seized by wildlife agents after an illegal hunt, Jensen spent much of her summer painting North Slope crude oil onto more than 100 fur patches, methodically measuring out dish soap and water and analyzing the amount of oil that washes out. The study has taken her to the North Slope multiple times, including to the Alaska Clean Seas facility in Deadhorse, the hub for the Prudhoe Bay oil fields in Alaska's Arctic. There she ran tests with North Slope water.

Jensen has even sprayed vegetable oil on a real polar bear at the zoo in Anchorage after it'd been knocked out with anesthesia as part of an annual checkup. The vegetable oil came off quickly with dish soap and water -- long before the bear's two-hour snooze wore off. “It was sort of like a mock run-through,” she said.

They performed other tasks during the cleaning: Drawing blood, assessing the bear's health, providing additional anesthesia with gas as needed -- all the time closely monitoring the bear's oxygen and respiration levels.

"It went great," Jensen said.

Specter of oil spill     

Painting crude on a live polar bear wasn't an option because that might kill it. But in 1981, the Canadians once monitored oil-tarred bears. After ingesting the oil, two of the three bears died.

"Results indicate that oiling of fur may lead to ingestion of oil through grooming and licking behavior, and cause thermoregulatory and metabolic stresses to occur as well," the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said of the Canadian study. "Residual oil may persist if the animal is not cleaned completely."

The residual oil led to tissue damage from too much blood in the urine, dehydration, a lack of eating and ultimately renal failure, Fish and Wildlife said.

With shipping and industrial activity rising in the Arctic, so does the possibility of an oil spill. Royal Dutch Shell this past summer became the first company in two decades to drill in the U.S. Arctic Ocean off Alaska's northern coasts. Other companies could follow. And the U.S. Coast Guard reported a spike in ship traffic this summer, raising concerns about oil spills from groundings.

Meanwhile, fears about polar bear populations are on the rise as their sea-ice habitat shrinks. A record 80 of them appeared near the village of Kaktovik this summer, as sea ice reached new lows. Some of the polar bears were thin and searching for scraps of whale meat after swimming ashore, villagers said.

Slingload of polar bear 

If there's ever a spill, it would likely impact no more than a few bears, said Jensen. Oil companies already ward them from the Prudhoe Bay oil patch with firecracker shells. In a real disaster, the companies would likely be even more cautious. Deterrents around spills would also be thrown up to keep bears away, something Fish and Wildlife's response plan will delve into.

Dealing with a lot of bears could pose a huge problem: There's just one polar-bear holding cage on the North Slope. It's capable of housing only a single big bear or a family of three, said Susi Miller, a Fish and Wildlife polar bear biologist.

Other key resources are sparse, too. There's no helicopter dedicated to polar bear response. Finding one big enough to haul a polar bear could be difficult in a real spill, when aircraft are already booked hauling responders and other equipment, said Miller.

If aircraft are available, Fish and Wildlife officers would be among the first on scene, said Jensen. They'd dart the polar bear, sling-load it beneath a helicopter and fly it to Deadhorse. Alaska Clean Seas, which handles spill response for oil companies in the region, would work with other responders to figure out where to clean the bear. Jensen and others would arrive later for the bath, along with the zoo's longtime veterinarian, Riley Wilson.

"We'd be boots on the ground in 48 hours," Jensen said of herself, other zoo workers and staff at the Pet Stop veterinary clinic that Wilson owns. If more than a handful of big bears are oiled, straining the zoo's holding capacity in Anchorage, some bears might be flown to the Alaska SeaLife Center for holding.

The plan leaves plenty of questions that won't be easily answered. Can an oiled bear survive a sub-zero helicopter ride, since it wouldn't get much warmth from its fur? How much oil will the bear lick off and ingest before its cleaned? "The biggest challenge we'll face will be getting the bear in our hands," said Jensen.

Cleaning the animal might be the easy part. Most dish soaps would likely do the job, but the researchers went with Dawn because it's a known entity for wildlife bathing. The company touts the dish soap's animal-cleaning power on its web site, claiming it has donated thousands of bottles over three decades to help more than 75,000 animals.  

This summer Jensen's gone through bottles of the blue liquid "like crazy," she said during a demonstration recently, as she squirted a big syringe of it into a measuring cup of water. In the operating room at the zoo's pungent infirmary, near cages of foxes and baby river otters waiting to go on exhibit, Jensen grabbed a pair of calipers and dipped a patch of oiled fur into the cup.  She swilled it for a minute as the water grayed. After a bit more dunking in more clean water, out came white fur.

'Scrub, scrub, scrub'

"Sparkling clean on top. But there's still oil on the skin," she said, spreading the fur with her fingers.  

That vanished quickly, too, after a quick scrub with her fingers and a bit more soap. Ideally, that's how it'd work in a real response. Lots of hands would be on scene to bathe the bear "100 percent clean," she said.

"This study considers the best variables so we don't have that oil next to the skin," she said. That includes comparisons of warm and cold water, freshwater versus saltwater, and a look at the persistency of different kinds of crude oil pulled from the North Slope oil fields.  

"We're looking for the best combination so we can say if this ever happens, we'll start with this and then we'll scrub, scrub, scrub," she said. 

Contact Alex DeMarban at alex(at)alaskadispatch.com