“When the wind is right and the bears are sitting at the mesh you can almost smell them. Nowhere else in the world will you get such a close and perfectly safe encounter as that.”
–Bear Keeper Amy on experiencing Cochrane’s polar bears
Canada has around 80% of the world’s polar bears, but the odds of spotting one outside of a zoo are rare unless you live in places like Churchill or Iqaluit. Which is why visiting the Cochrane Polar Bear Habitat is one of the most interesting and unique experiences you can have this 2017.
Tucked away in the outskirts of this Northeastern Ontario town, full of pine and fir and snow, lies the world’s largest enclosed polar bear habitat and its three current residents, Ganuk, Henry, and Inukshuk. Here, for a small admission fee, visitors can watch the bears chow down on some moose meat popsicles and watermelon, enjoy a swim in the world’s largest enclosed lake, or even paint pictures with their feet using non-toxic paint.
Meet the Bears
In fact, the habitat is so unusual it’s featured in the New York Times bestselling travel book Atlas Obscura: An Explorer’s Guide to the World’s Most Unusual Places. The habitat’s webcam, where you can watch the polar bears live in action, was voted one of the best and most interesting feeds of 2016 by EarthCam. (Be warned, watching a polar bear play in the snow is addictive). With 7 hectares of land to call their own this massive, natural habitat lets the bears roam free and interact with each other while allowing researchers to learn more about the bears and educate the public about these remarkable creatures.
Each of the habitat’s three bears were raised in captivity. Inukshuk, the oldest, was rescued as a cub from Northern Ontario after his mother was shot. His son Ganuk was born in 2009 in Quebec, and Henry, the youngest, was born in 2013 at Sea World Gold Coast in Australia. And while the habitat has room for five bears its three current residents keep the staff busy.
“They each have their own likes and dislikes, food preferences, different ways of playing and even different tones when they roar and growl. They are a truly unique species,” notes bear keeper Amy. Each bear has his own personality—Henry’s the artistic one who loves to paint, Ganuk enjoys human company (he’ll lay down at the fence while someone keeps him company on the other side), while Inukshuk will sniff and lick just about anything he encounters.
A Day in the Life
A day in the life of a polar bear keeper is a far cry from a regular desk job and requires a unique set of skills. Current bear keeper Amy has helped rescue sun bears and Asiatic black bears with Free the Bears in Cambodia, spent time as an education officer at Sydney’s Sea Life Aquarium, and worked as an intern at British Columbia’s Northern Lights Wildlife Society before accepting a post as a bear keeper in Cochrane.
After an early morning perimeter check to ensure the fences are all intact and haven’t been damaged by fallen trees, the keepers set out new toys while moving or removing the old ones to keep the bears stimulated throughout the day. Next, a big breakfast is set out for the bears to discover—fish, moose, and seal meat during the winter with fruits and vegetables added during the summer. Then the keepers let them out of their night enclosures where the bears sleep on rubber mats and straw for around 12-14 hours a night. Staff then keep track of behaviour, activity, food intake, and any medical issues in a daily log.
But all visitors have to do is relax and enjoy the excitement of watching the bears in their natural habitat. The facility is great for visitors of all ages, and classroom visits are welcome—bear keepers even Skype chat with students across the globe.
“As the global temperature rises and the sea ice declines, there is less and less sea ice for these bears to hunt on,” notes Amy. “Scientists are already seeing less cubs surviving their first year of life and smaller adult bears in general.” According to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, global polar bear numbers are project to decline by 30% by 2050. This makes the Cochrane Polar Bear Habitat a crucial component of the world’s efforts to study, protect, and educate others about these incredible animals.
“Canada is home to the largest population of polar bears in the world. Canadians should be proud of that and want to learn about and protect these creatures as much as they can. The staff here are a wealth of knowledge and passion for bears and we love nothing more than spreading the word of the polar bear to as many people as we can,” Amy says.
So be sure to catch a bear talk led by one of the keepers while you’re there to learn everything you can about polar bears. For refreshments, stop in at Nanook’s Snack Shack across the street or enjoy your picnic lunch on one of their picnic tables. And don’t forget to stop at the Snowmobile Museum before you leave—admission is free with your paid entrance to the Polar Bear Habitat, and showcases nearly 100 vintage snowmobiles from the 1950s to present day.