The largest zoo in the province that calls itself "the polar bear capital of the world" is once again capable of housing the iconic Arctic species — but don't expect a viewing any time soon.
The $3.5-million conversion of Assiniboine Park Zoo's old bear enclosure into a rescue and rehabilitation facility for orphaned or injured polar bears is substantially complete. The zoo will be capable of housing a polar bear by the end of July in the first phase of its new International Polar Bear Conservation Centre.
"Within a matter of a week or two, we could have all the odds and ends taken care of," said Don Peterkin, chief operations officer of the Assiniboine Park Conservancy, the non-profit organization that runs Winnipeg's largest park and is overseeing $200 million worth of improvements.
Assiniboine Park Zoo has not housed a polar bear since the 2008 death of Debby, the oldest known member of her species, who lived in Winnipeg for 42 years.
The zoo has not been able to obtain a new polar bear because its 1960s-vintage bear enclosures did not meet Manitoba Conservation standards for the species. Those standards were drawn up after revelations the Arctic animals were being housed in inhumane conditions in a handful of warm-climate zoos and travelling circuses.
The Assiniboine Park Conservancy is building a $50-million Arctic exhibit called Journey To Churchill. When it opens in 2013, it will include a modern polar bear facility with above-ground and underwater viewing, as well as enclosures for seals, caribou, muskox, arctic foxes and tundra swans, said conservancy CEO Margaret Redmond.
Meanwhile, the International Polar Bear Conservation Centre's rescue component is capable of housing up to six bears in the retrofitted bear enclosure, which once housed grizzlies, black bears and polar bears.
The new enclosure, which meets Manitoba Conservation standards, has new interior holding areas to receive orphaned or otherwise distressed polar bears and three interconnected outdoor areas with adequate shade and water, more space to move around, higher walls and surfaces composed of riverstone and gravel, which allow the animals to satisfy their digging instincts.
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Orphaned bears are the most likely candidates for the new facility, although other polar bears could be housed, Peterkin said. The first bears likely will come from Manitoba, but it's possible distressed animals could come from other jurisdictions, he added.
At first, the public will only be able to view the bears through closed-circuit cameras inside an interpretive gallery in the second phase of the conservation centre, a new $4.5-million building that will also house research facilities and a classroom.
The orphaned bears will become accustomed to people slowly and shown to visitors before being shipped off to other zoos, Peterkin said. "What we're doing is for the betterment of the bears," he said. "They need to come first, and when we're ready, we'll invite the public to see the bears."
Along with rescuing individual animals, the centre is intended to educate the public about climate change and the threat it poses to the long-term survival of polar bears. Fifteen of the world's 19 distinct polar-bear subpopulations are threatened, including the western Hudson Bay subpopulation that summers around Churchill.
Some wildlife biologists expect polar bears will no longer be found in the wild in Manitoba within the next 30 years due to longer ice-free periods on Hudson Bay, which shorten the species' feeding window.
Spending on improvements to Assiniboine Park:
$10 million spent on new nature playground, duck pond and family centre
$8 million on both phases of the International Polar Bear Conservation Centre, to be completed this year
$50 million on Journey To Churchill, the Assiniboine Park Zoo's Arctic exhibit, to be completed in 2013
$50 million to rebuild the Assiniboine Park Conservatory, beginning in 2014
$42 million on additional Assiniboine Park Zoo improvements
$40 million on land drainage, landscaping and other infrastructure