Planet Earth

When Biologists Wear (Faux) Fur, It’s With the Babies in Mind

DiscoblogBy Valerie RossJun 23, 2011 4:54 PM

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It's not easy being a parent. There are the constant feedings, the sleepless nights---and of course, the time-consuming task of shimmying into that unwieldy animal suit. When the offspring of endangered species are orphaned or abandoned, scientists and vets fill the pawprints of the missing parents. But animals raised by humans can develop all sorts of issues; they're not prepared to fend for themselves in the wild, they don't play well with others, and they have an unhealthy interest in humans, cozying up to hikers and hunters. So while humans are busily looking for Mommy’s nose in Junior’s face, these scientists take things in the opposite direction. Here's how they make themselves over to look, act, and even smell like the animals they raise:

  • Scientists at the Hetaoping Research and Conservation Center for the Giant Panda, part of China's Wolong Nature Reserve, donned full-body plush panda suits to raise a four-month-old cub. The result is both adorable and more than a little absurd: Look, it's a panda! Walking on two legs. And weilding a measuring tape. Uh, what happened to its head?

  • At the Wildlife Education and Rehabilitation Center in California, vets are aiming for a little more realism. They rub themselves with herbs to disguise their human smell---and, once they've climbed into a bona fide bobcat suit, splash on a little eau de bobcat (i.e., feline urine). The vets also amble around on all fours, making them basically indistinguishable, we’re sure, from actual bobcats. So far, the program has raised more than thirty kittens.

  • The conservationists raising California condors get to keep their civvies on. Instead of bird suits, they use hand puppets---which look a bit like tricked-out rubber gloves---to feed and interact with the chicks. When they're old enough, the chicks are placed in condor pre-school with other birds, a stepping stone to the outside world.

  • Cub rearing, though, isn’t the only reason zoologists don big plush suits. At Chengdu Zoo in Sichuan Province, China, in a drill simulating a tiger escape, zoo staff chased a man dressed like a dopey-looking tiger as he scampered around the zoo. The real tiger, looking on, was unamused.

Image: Flickr / Joe Shlabotnik

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