I look up and stare at a big white furry bum of a polar bear suspended above my head. The polar bear floats gracefully in the water, oblivious to the excited humans below.
I’m visiting Assiniboine Park Zoo’s Journey to Churchill, a sanctuary for around 200 species. The zoo is home to muskoxen, Arctic fox, wolves and other northern species. But the stars are the polar bears.
The polar bear (Ursus maritimus) is a species that is at the top of the Arctic food chain. In the wilderness, they feed on seals. Polar bears are classified as a marine mammal in the USA, Norway, Greenland and Russia. But Canada classifies polar bears as a terrestrial mammal.
There are around 25,000 polar bears remaining and the species is under threat. Polar bears are listed as vulnerable by the IUCN. In Russia, polar bears are classified as rare or endangered. In the USA, they are listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. And in Canada, polar bears are a species of special concern under the National Species at Risk Act. Both Manitoba and Ontario have listed polar bears as endangered. The best place to see polar bears in the wild is in Churchill, Manitoba.
The main reason for the concern for the species is habitat loss through rapid loss of sea ice and reduced access to food due to climate change. The prediction is that two thirds of the world’s polar bears could disappear within this century.
Polar bear family
Members of the polar bear family at Assiniboine Park Zoo are Humphrey, a polar bear cub relocated from the Toronto Zoo. Humphrey’s older brother, Hudson, was the first polar bear resident of the zoo’s Journey to Churchill exhibit.
There’s Blizzard and Star. These two had lost their Mum and were spotted from a helicopter in Hudson Bay. Kaska was orphaned when she was one year old and Aurora was found wandering around near Churchill.
Humphrey and Hudson are the only bears at the zoo who were born in captivity. All the other bears are from the wilderness of northern Manitoba.
Winnipeg zoo is popular with tourists and locals and offers guided tours that give the visitors the opportunity to interact with animals. There’s a Polar Playground for children. This interactive playground offers educational sessions for children to learn about polar bears and other northern animals.
It has motion-themed activities, including a moving ice-mass floor that responds to footsteps, an ice cave and an Aurora Borealis wall where children can conduct the northern lights and play a wall-sized icicle xylophone. Workshops and classes are not just for children. There are also informative sessions for adults.
Winnipeg zoo is open all-year round but as many of the animals in the zoo are from the north, a great time to visit is in winter, when the Riley Family Duck Pond turns into a big skating rink.
In the summer, you can rent tandem bicycles and peddle around the zoo.
Christina Pfeiffer was a guest of Canadian Tourism Commission