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!
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?
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!
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?
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.
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!
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
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.