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Young polar bear to live on in zoo

Spared from euthanasia after attacking man in Churchill

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A young polar bear that attacked a man in Churchill earlier this month will be the first wild bear to find a new home at Winnipeg's new International Polar Bear Conservation Centre at Assiniboine Park Zoo.

The decision to spare the bear — in the past, polar bears that attacked people were euthanized — was made this week by zoo and provincial officials shortly after Conservation and Water Stewardship Minister Gord Mackintosh expanded regulations to allow the bear to be brought to Winnipeg.

"I'm glad the bear is getting a second chance," said Garett Kolsun, who was attacked by the 122-kilogram bear early Sept. 7 as he walked alone in the Hudson Bay community.

"I'd rather not see it euthanized. What happened between me and the bear, we were kind of both in the wrong place at the wrong time, so to speak. It was a bear being a bear. People live in the bear's backyard and it was just passing through."

Kolsun, a Canadian Border Services officer temporarily assigned to work in the port town, suffered scratches and superficial puncture wounds to his hip. He escaped after diverting the bear's attention with the bright screen of his cellphone.

"It was awfully scary, but I would much rather see it stay alive. They're majestic animals. We want them to be around for future generations. You wouldn't want to see it be euthanized because it was being a bear."

'I'm glad the bear is getting a second chance' -- attack victim Garett Kolsun

How soon the so-far-nameless-bear will be flown from Churchill — he's being held at the town's polar bear holding facility — is still being worked out. Dr. Chris Enright, head of veterinary services for the zoo, said a flight will likely be arranged within the next two weeks.

"It is a big deal," said Margaret Redmond, president and CEO of the Assiniboine Park Conservancy. "This is why this facility was built. It's there for saving bears that otherwise would have to die, either through euthanasia or starving death. When that bear arrives, it's a very big day."

Officials believe the bear is about three years old. An analysis of an extracted tooth will pinpoint its age.

Jim Duncan, Manitoba Conservation wildlife director, said the bear is healthy enough to be transported and has been deemed a candidate for a life in captivity. "We don't want to put a bear that would never adjust into captivity," Duncan said. "A younger animal is more adaptable to changing life conditions such as life in captivity."

Enright said the bear was also given a full physical examination, under anesthesia, and has been under observation while in the Churchill holding facility. He has not shown any overt signs of stress, such as repetitive head movements or pacing, and is eating seal fat provided by his keepers.

Mackintosh said he was in Churchill two days after the attack on Kolsun and saw the bear at the facility.

"I was told that the regulations required him to be put down based on the well-accepted principle that releasing a polar bear that has attacked a human is at significantly higher risk to attack again," Mackintosh said. "That wasn't the answer I want in terms of polar bear conservation and consistency with Bambi's Law."

Mackintosh said Bambi's Law, brought in last July, makes euthanasia a last resort. The policy change was made after a conservation officer shot a young deer named Bambi at the Windy Bay Colony in southwestern Manitoba.

Mackintosh said he asked his department to apply some science and common sense to see if the bear could go to the International Polar Bear Conservation Centre, which opened Jan. 23, 2012. The centre is part of the new Journey to Churchill exhibit at the zoo, which is part of a larger $200-million redevelopment plan for the zoo. The four-hectare Journey to Churchill opens in June 2014.

"This is a very unique situation," Mackintosh said. "This bear will remind visitors of the dangerously wild majesty of the Churchill polar bear and help tell the climate-change story as well."

The bear will join Hudson, a two-year-old polar bear born at the Toronto Zoo, but in separate quarters. He will not go on display right away, but will be quarantined.

"In a case of a bear like this that's coming in from the wild, everything about the zoo is going to be new to it," Enright said. "We really have to play it by ear based on the individual, how they are acclimatizing, take it slow, to make sure they're as comfortable as can be."

Enright added while the new bear and Hudson will be separated, both will be keenly aware of one another.

"Polar bears have an amazing sense of smell," he said. "They'll know there's another bear in the area and they'll sort of shake hands that way, by smelling one another."

Dr. Steven Amstrup, chief scientist for Polar Bears International, said the bear will also serve as a "spokesbear" for wild bears and the threat to them caused by climate change.

"That bear can create a great deal of benefit for its wild kin and ultimately all life on Earth," Amstrup said.

Duncan added while there are other bears in the Churchill holding facility, this is the only one to date that will come to the zoo. The bears are gathering in the Churchill area to wait for Hudson Bay to freeze up so they can hunt their main diet, seal.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 28, 2013 A15

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