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City's polar bears thriving in the frigid temperatures

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Winnipeg's near-polar winter climate is proving heavenly for the Assiniboine Park Zoo's four resident polar bears.

On a cold, stormy Wednesday, Hudson, the happy-go-lucky polar bear from the Toronto Zoo, pranced around, playing with a leaf and stick. Aurora and Kaska, the princesses of the zoo, observed the visitors from above at the top of the rocks, while Storm, the rebel of the group, basked on the snowy ground.

"People have to come out and see them, I mean they're such beautiful animals. This is actually the ideal weather to come," said Janice Martin, a curator at the Assiniboine Park Zoo.

Storm, Aurora and Kaska joined Hudson a few months ago.

Storm, who is about three years old, arrived last Oct. 9. He posed a safety risk in Churchill after he chased and bit a man in the hip last September. The zoo welcomed him so he wouldn't have to be euthanized.

Aurora and Kaska are about one year of age and were both orphaned in the wild. Aurora was found near the Churchill airport and brought to the zoo on Oct. 29, and Kaska on Nov. 19 after her mother was shot. They get along well, live in the same cage and haven't been separated since December, Martin said.

Hudson and Storm have a more complicated relationship.

Last November, the zookeepers began to integrate Storm in Hudson's cage. During their first encounter, Hudson was curious and approached Storm. Storm responded by smacking Hudson.

"(With) Storm and Hudson we basically got the hand-raised polar bear and we got a wild bear," Martin said. "It's really them just needing to figure each other out."

They have been together a few times since November and the zookeepers are still working at it.

The four polar bears are thriving in Winnipeg's extreme temperatures.

"They've adapted really well to the cold, they've got the small ears, the hollow hair, the black skin, fur on their feet," Martin said.

At night, the polar bears have access to indoor areas and they're monitored on camera 24 hours a day so the zoo can keep track of how much time they spend inside.

"Someone like Storm, who is a wild bear from Churchill, spends no time inside. The two girls may sleep a few hours inside and Hudson goes in and out, not staying inside for long periods," Martin said.

In the wild, polar bears wait for the pack ice to form so they can hunt seals that emerge for air. It's far less tiring than swimming after the seals.

"When the ice isn't freezing as quickly, they're going longer and longer periods without having good food," Martin said.

The polar bears at the Assiniboine Park Zoo are part of the Species Survival Plan.

This international program was developed in 1981 by the American Association of Zoos and Aquariums, and organizes threatened or endangered species in the wild to be bred at selected zoos. This ensures their survival and helps maintain a healthy population.

When the female bears reach their breeding age around five years of age, the zoo will take into consideration the recommendations of the Species Survival Plan committee and begin the breeding process.

Later this week, a pair of Siberian tigers -- Samkha and Vasili -- will arrive from the Calgary Zoo. The male siblings were born in March 2012 and are also part of the Species Survival Plan. They will not integrate with the existing male and female Siberian tigers at Winnipeg's zoo.

estefaniawujkiw@live.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 16, 2014 A15

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Updated on Thursday, January 16, 2014 at 7:24 AM CST: Replaces photo, adds video

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