Assiniboine Park Zoo will bring Churchill and polar bears to Winnipeg

Last modified: Thursday, June 19, 2014

This is an exciting year for tourism in Winnipeg, with two big attractions opening in the summer and fall that will bring thousands more visitors to the city. Besides the tremendous Canadian Human Rights Museum, the new Journey to Churchill at the Assiniboine Park Zoo is going to excite and engage children and adults with a 10-acre park especially designed to showcase polar bears in a natural habitat. It will be opening in June 2014.

We visited the snowy zoo today, and with the windchill around -20, we still found families touring the zoo, enjoying the tigers, camels, lynx, ibex and other creatures who seemed to be plenty happy sitting in their snow-filled cages. Rene Lanctot told us how he got his start as a night watchman more than 30 years ago at the zoo, and worked his way up to cage cleaner, then Big Cats keeper, and now, he's the top dog among the zookeepers. He is still a true animal lover at heart, it was evident as we watched him play with two Siberian tigers (they were in their cage, he was not!) .

Though Lanctot could retire this year, with his 20 years of service and a pension, he's not planning on going anywhere. It's just too exciting a time at the Zoo. For years the APZ was run by the city, who siphoned off revenues and put in little for investments. Today after a massive fundraising effort, nearly $94 million has been raised and additional funds came from the province to create a replica of the tiny village of Churchill, on Hudson Bay in northern Manitoba, and famous for its polar bear encounters.

The town is filled with the giant carnivores and a cottage industry brings the public out in 'Tundra buggies" for close up visits with the bears. Flights up to Churchill are pricey, and so, the zoo here in Winnipeg is building a huge habitat for their own bevy of bears. One of the swimming tanks will have seals on one side and the polar bears on the other, and people will be able to watch as the two eye each other underwater.

There is even a replica of the train cars and Quonset Huts that make up today's Churchill. It's all combined with an interactive area for people to learn about how scientists track and study the bears, and will allow very close up and safe viewing of the polar bears.

As we toured the site, still full of orange covering over the fake rocks being built, Rene told us how exited he is about Positive Reinforcement training. The zookeepers are constantly coming up with ways to reinforce desired behaviors--for example they reward a lynx who goes into a transporter cage and comes back out. Then when they want to move the lynx, it easily goes into the cage, and there is no need to use a net and freak the animal out. They do things like put trees that other animals have touched into another animals cage, to give them something to sniff. It's called enrichment, a way to make the animals more comfortable and less bored.

They put cut Christmas trees into the cages of animals so they can play with them. It's all about trying to make their caged experience better so they will be healthier. It's heartening to know too, that every single animal here was bred in captivity, so no animals were captured just to be put into the zoo.

Winnipeg is full of exciting ideas and the new Journey to Churchill is sure to be a big hit here. I hope to come back and see it when the snow melts and it's time for the short summer!