Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Frozen friendships forged

Zoo's polar bears meet public

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A life-long friendship began in a snowy enclosure at Assiniboine Park Zoo on Friday.

And not just between two young female polar bears, either. Don't forget about the humans.

"This is really exciting for Winnipeg," said a bundled-up Allison Stephensen, who was there to see the unveiling of the zoo's two polar bear cubs, Aurora and Kaska. "It's great for tourism. People will come to see this. It will give us something special in Canada."

Stephensen, along with daughter Alex, was one of the first visitors on Friday to catch a glimpse of the female cubs spending their initial day together at the International Polar Bear Conservation Centre. Both Aurora and Kaska, who had been found orphaned in Churchill, were frolicking about their enclosure, which is bookended by male adult bears Hudson on one side and Storm on the other.

The four animals are the first to find refuge in the centre, a $4.5-million facility that will serve as a residence for orphaned, injured or problem bears. The IPBCC is the first phase of a $200-million project -- which will include an exhibit called Journey to Churchill -- that is expected to be completed in the summer of 2014.

Aurora and Kaska, however, had just been paired together as of Thursday evening.

And how have the two girls been getting along?

"They're like two little kids," said Dr. Brian Joseph, director of zoological operations. "They're great friends. They're having fun exploring the exhibits. They're sliding around in the snow, investigating together. And they'll probably be friends for life. For the next 30-some years they'll probably be companions.

"Having them together makes their world much more interesting than if they were by themselves. And if they were left in their natural environment they would have perished by now. They're way too young to survive on their own."

The cubs will remain on exhibit during regular zoo hours. However, as a bonus, admission to Assiniboine Zoo will be free to children ages 12 and under starting Dec. 21 through to Jan. 5. Hours of operation are from 9 a.m. - 4 p.m. (9 a.m. - noon on Dec. 24 and closed on Christmas Day).

Joseph said the winter holidays are an ideal time to see the bears.

"It's the perfect time because you can come see them in polar bear weather," he noted. "You get to see them slide around in the snow just like you would up in Churchill."

Also, the Riley Family Duck Pond at Assiniboine Park will be officially opened for the season today at noon. The family-style toboggan run located just south of the pond will also be open to the public.

randy.turner@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 21, 2013 A2

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