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Photos: Cleaning crude oil-stained polar bear fur with dish soap

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
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
Loren Holmes

With shipping and industrial activity rising in the Arctic, so does the possibility of an oil spill. And researchers are looking at how to respond to polar bears drenched in crude should a spill happen in Alaska's Arctic.

Using a polar bear skin seized by wildlife agents after an illegal hunt, Shannon Jensen of the Alaska Zoo spent months painting North Slope crude 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 had 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.

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