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Smelly rub a salve for orphaned polar bears

Until they discovered the strange effects of Vicks VapoRub, wildlife officials couldn't offer much of a future to the orphaned polar bear cubs that occasionally wander into the northern port town of Churchill, Manitoba.

The cubs were rejected by other bear families because they didn't smell right. The provincial government had no choice but to kill them or send them away to zoos, which became an embarrassment last year when some of them turned up in an illicit Mexican circus.

But researchers for a British animal rights group say they've found a more humane solution, and have permission this year for a new phase in a pilot project that tricks female polar bears into adopting orphan cubs by smearing the cubs with a common household ointment.

The idea is that a female bear that has offspring won't notice the difference between her young and the orphan when they're covered in pungent goop.

"They laugh at me in Churchill when I go into the grocery store and buy all the Vicks," said Kim Daley, a field biologist at the Churchill Northern Studies Center, whose polar bear project was designed and paid for by the Born Free Foundation in England. "But I have to get ready for the busy season."

Daley has packed her orphan kit with waxy cattle-marking crayons, a global positioning device, radio collars and as many blue plastic jars of Vicks VapoRub cream as she can find.

Now she must wait until the polar bears gather around Churchill, which typically happens between September and November while the animals are waiting for Hudson Bay to freeze enough to resume hunting on the floes.

If provincial wildlife officials catch an orphan cub, Daley will help them find a suitable foster mother. The unwitting parent and the cub will be tranquillized and airlifted by helicopter to a remote field.

Daley will mark the animals with waxy crayon and attach the radio collars. Then she will rub their heads, necks and backs with the Vicks cream and leave the area again before the sedatives wear off.

"You don't want to be having any confrontations with them when the tranqs wear off," she said.

Her group has tried this technique on four pairs of animals since 2000, and it appears to have worked twice. But it's impossible to be sure, she said, because they didn't have radio collars to track their movements until this year.

Smearing Vicks VapoRub on animals' noses isn't an entirely new trick. Farmers often dab the cream on the noses of horses and cows in situations where they don't want the animals distracted by smell, such as at livestock shows.