Churchill is a tiny town in Northern Canada, and getting there is no small feat. People make the journey, though, hoping for the chance to spot a polar bear. Lucky for us, Assiniboine Park Zoo in Winnipeg, Canada, has brought all the beautiful species of the north together in one stunning, 10 acre exhibit, aptly named… Journey to Churchill.

When I got the opportunity to go behind the scenes with one of the researchers at Journey to Churchill, I was ecstatic. Beautiful bears, laboratories, and stunning photo opportunities all in one day? Score! There’s a lot to see and discover for yourself in the Journey to Churchill exhibit, beyond what I’m going to share with you here! This post is all about what’s behind the scenes, so that when you and your friends visit Assiniboine Park Zoo, you can amaze them with your polar bear trivia knowledge.

Come explore behind the scenes of Journey to Churchill!

The Journey to Churchill Animals

Journey to Churchill is home to many winter-loving species, including arctic foxes, snowy owls, and wolves. While I mostly focused on learning about the polar bear exhibit, I did learn a little about how other species came to the zoo.

Many of the animals in Journey to Churchill are rescues. One of the 6 seals is missing an eye, another has a flipper injury, and nearly all of the snowy owls suffered an injury that prevents them from flying.

The polar bears are also rescues. If a bear loses it’s mother before age 2, it will not have the skills to survive on it’s own. The zoo rescued a few bears who were orphaned before this critical age. One bear was even rescued from being put down after an altercation with a human in the wild, and has done very well in the zoo! You can read some of their stories here.

These animals are all non-releasable, and the zoo is their forever home!

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The Polar Bear Exhibit

The polar bear exhibit in Journey to Churchill is truly remarkable. It’s award winning, and it’s easy to see why.

Firstly, the area for the bears is huge. Currently there are 6 adult bears living in the main enclosure, and 3 cubs living in another area. The bears have their choice of swimming pools, near and far from humans, free range of multiple football fields worth of land, and a multitude of rocks and caves to climb on and nap in.

It is possible to visit and not see any polar bears, because the bears have that much space to themselves.

One of the first discussions that came up when I posted about Journey to Churchill on Instagram was, of course, that it’s better to leave the bears in nature.

It’s a lovely ideal, and I wish that were always possible – but it’s not. The planet is changing. More bears are being orphaned, and more bears are going hungry out in the wild. Places like Assiniboine Park Zoo, or the Montreal Biodome, play an important role in protecting vulnerable and endangered species.

The zoo and the research team do everything they can to give the bears a safe, happy home, and it shows. I didn’t witness any stereotyping behaviours (repetitive movements like pacing that indicate an animal is stressed), but I saw lots of running, playing, and sunbathing.

The most captivating part of the exhibit is definitely the tunnel, where you can watch polar bears swim above and beside you! I was there while two bears were swimming.

P.S. are we connected on Instagram yet?

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Polar bear viewing tunnel

Polar Bear Research 

There’s a lot of awesome research being done behind the scenes of Journey to Churchill. I had an opportunity to visit the labs, and to learn about some of the projects the researchers are working on to improve the quality of life for polar bears, both in the zoo and out in the wild. The scientist in me loved visiting the labs!

GPS tracking. 

Fun fact: (excellent dinner party conversation material here, folks) female polars have heads that are wider than their necks, so they can easily wear a tracking collar. Males can’t! Their necks are wider than their heads, and the collar slips right off. The research team at Journey to Churchill is working with a start up company to create a light-weight ear tag tracker, so that male bears can be monitored in the wild.  

Polar bear play. 

Watching polar bears play is adorable. They love to wrestle, chase each other, and play with enrichment objects. Enrichment objects, in this case, are big orbs with holes in them, so you can put something like, say, a FitBark (FitBit for dogs) inside.

That’s exactly what the research team did to two enrichment objects. They then coated one of the objects with seal oil before giving them back to the bears, to see which one was played with the most. 

Which object do you think got more play time? The one coated with oil, or the one left plain?

Polar bear paw print

There was no difference! I thought seal oil was going be the favourite. This gives the researchers an insight in to how important playing is to polar bears, and how much they enjoy it.

Glitter poo. 

Yes, you read that right. I promised excellent dinner party material, and I’m going to deliver! When the bears arrive at the zoo, the researchers want to make sure that they’re not too stressed out. One of the best ways to evaluate stress is by measuring cortisol levels.

The body releases cortisol as part of it’s stress response. This fine in the short term. Once whatever is stressing you ends or leaves, your cortisol levels return to normal. Chronically elevated cortisol levels, however, are detrimental to your body and brain. There are a few ways to measure cortisol levels in the body. Saliva, blood samples, and even feces. That last one if the preferred method in Journey to Churchill!

How do you tell polar bear poo apart, though? There’s a simple solution: Glitter!

Glitter and polar bear list

Every bear is given a meatball packed with a different colour of glitter. Green glitter poo belongs to Storm, purple glitter poo belong to Aurora, and so on.

I asked the research about the patterns in cortisol levels displayed by each bear. When a bear first arrives at the zoo, there are large spikes in it’s cortisol levels indicating high stress. These spikes decrease in magnitude overtime. Eventually, the bears show regular day-to-day fluctuations, without the big spikes.

Bonus: I took a Hormones and Behaviour course as part of my Neuroscience degree last year. Many of us crave sugary and fatty foods when we’re stressed. We looked at some research during the course which showed that resisting cravings can cause your cortisol levels to spike even higher. It’s best to give in! Just a little though – enjoy a few squares of dark chocolate, and the Dementors go away. #HarryPotterReference

Swimming polar bear

Visiting Journey to Churchill

I’m sure by now you’re completely convinced that you have to add the Assiniboine Park Zoo to your list of travel plans. There’s lots of other cool stuff to do in Winnipeg too, more on that in a future post!

Here are a few tips for your visit:

  • go early, if possible. As always with travelling, it’s best to beat the crowds.
  • return to the same area a few times if you want to see something. There were no bears in the tunnel on my first walk through, but there were two an hour later.
  • plan to have lunch at the zoo. There is a restaurant looking out at the polar bears!
  • check out the Leatherdale International Polar Bear Conservation Centre. Great information about polar bears, the environment, and the changes you can make in your daily life to help protect their natural habitats.

Read Next:

Tips for Visiting the Montreal Biodome

Hiking and Protecting Pink Lake in Gatineau Park

The Story of Ottawa’s Tulip Festival

Thanks to Assiniboine Park Zoo for  admission, and to Tourism Winnipeg for organizing this behind the scenes experience! As always, opinions and ideas expressed here are my own.

18 Replies to “Journey to Churchill: Going Behind the Scenes at Assiniboine Park Zoo”

  1. I love the behind the scenes experiences. They give you such detailed insights into things you’d otherwise never fully know. There are some interesting points discussed here, like why we can’t always leave the bears to nature! Also the GPS Tracking thing is such a cool thing… hahaha!

  2. oh my gosh I LOVE that all the animals there are rescues!! What an awesome zoo! 10 acres for the polar bears are fantastic. I feel like if a zoo can’t provide enough space for certain animals.. don’t have that particular animal!

  3. What a fantastic place! It put a smile on my face to read that the animals are all rescues, that poor one-eyed seal though. Ouch. It’s such a great opportunity to give them safe, happy homes while teaching us humans all about them at the same time. And that photo of you and the polar bear hand to paw on the glass is beautiful!

    1. Thanks Katherine! I completely agree – it’s awesome that they have a good home and that people can see them. When it comes right down to it, I think we’re better at caring about things we can see. When we see the polar bears, we take more actions to care for them.

  4. Looks like a great place to explore in Canada. Never heard of this zoo in Churchill before. The zoo for rescued polar bears is amazing. The pictures are stunning. Thanks for sharing

  5. Score with the Harry Potter reference! And glitter is my favorite color, but not necessarily when it’s covered in POO! Haha I love that even science can be fun! What an exciting place to get up close and personal with more of the arctic animals! I’ve seen a polar bear before, but only once, and it was amazing. They’re so beautiful!

    1. I was preeeeetty proud of that reference! LOL. Agreed. A whole new kind of glitter bomb hahaha.

  6. I’m usually not a fan of zoos just because it pains my heart to see such beautiful animals locked up in cages. This one, however, is AWESOME!!!!! So glad to hear all these animals are rescues and are getting the care and attention they need <3 This definitely makes me wanna pay a visit and also explore Canada more! Just wish domestic flights weren't so expensive ughhhh.

    1. Rumour has it we have an actual budget airline coming to Canada next summer! How sweet would that be.

  7. This is really cool, I love that despite that these guys will spend their days in captivity they look like they’re having a blast. Love the high-five photo you snapped with them too!

  8. I was here in June and truly fell in love with this place! I’m glad you had a wonderful experience, this is an AMAZING place. I would encourage anyone wanting to visit Winnipeg, to plan a stay now.

  9. Very nice post. I just stumbled upon your blog and wanted to say that I’ve truly enjoyed surfing around your blog posts. After all I will be subscribing to your feed and I hope you write again very soon!

  10. Wow what an amazing experience! I am so fascinated by polar bears. I love to see them thriving at a place like this. That photo of your hand on the glass is sooo cool!

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