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Canada Innovative Winnipeg zoo experiment shares the plight of polar bears

One-year-olds are not supposed to have breath that would peel paint.

Nor, on the other hand, are they supposed to stand eyeball to eyeball with you, close enough that you can hear the nostrils opening and closing, ready to tear you limb from limb and … gulp … happily eat you.

But meet Blizzard – just don't try to shake hands with him through the thick chain-link fence that is all that stands between you and the front page of this newspaper. Blizzard and his sister, Star, are one-year-old orphaned polar bears who are the latest additions to an ambitious experiment called Journey to Churchill at Winnipeg's Assiniboine Park Zoo.

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"Blizzard's ready to hold his own," says Brian Joseph, the zoo's new director. "He's not at all deterred by the presence of a stranger."

The stranger, on the other hand, is deterred, unnerved and twice frozen: once by the -15C temperature, a second time by the dark laser stare of a bear.

"There is nothing these bears are afraid of," Dr. Joseph continues. "They have no innate fear of humans because humans are merely another prey to them. There is no animal on Earth other than another polar bear – or a human with a rifle – that is a threat to them."

These bears may be confident and fear nothing, but a great many people are now fearing for them – and, sadly, are not so confident.

"The bears know nothing," Dr. Joseph says, "about climate change."

Five years ago, the Assiniboine Park Conservancy came up with an ambitious $200-million plan to rejuvenate the park, the old zoo and create something new that would be unique to the world, not just Winnipeg.

"There are lots of zoos in the world," conservancy president Margaret Redmond says, "and they tend to have animals from different parts of the world. The polar bear, however, is an iconic species for Manitobans."

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Ms. Redmond and conservancy chair Hartley Richardson tapped into funding from the province, the city and private donors – "It's a Manitoba thing," she says – and the master plan is now two-thirds of the way there, with Journey to Churchill the signature piece.

Spread over 10 acres, the journey has three components: a transition area where the two new cubs are being kept; a sprawling tundra-like landscape where it is possible to view mature polar bears, Arctic foxes, snowy owls, muskox and wolves in what seems like a barrier-free setting; and a laboratory and interpretive centre where visitors can watch polar bears swim and react to ringed seals living and diving in a pool separated only by glass.

"We want to do this better than anybody can," Ms. Redmond says.

This year, they brought Dr. Joseph in from California, though he says he has spent enough time in the Far North not to be intimidated by Winnipeg's legendary winter. Last winter, in fact, was so bitterly cold that special heating had to be provided during construction – an unexpected expense that meant a cost overrun of $4.5-million.

The new director has 40 years' experience in animal care, having started as a keeper at the San Diego Zoo before heading off, at the age of 29, to veterinary school. Dr. Joseph is also a U.S. Army Reserve veterinarian with a specialty in the care of bomb-sniffing dogs, and has participated in humanitarian efforts around the world.

The plight of the polar bear, however, held special attraction to him. There are, he says, fewer than 25,000 such bears remaining on the planet. There are 19 subpopulations of the species, of which nine are known to be decreasing in numbers. And this country's North holds 60 per cent of the world's polar-bear population.

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"They are a Canadian flagship species," Dr. Joseph says.

The alarms sound regularly. One scientific study predicts that by the year 2050 only 40 per cent of the polar-bear population will be left. Another study followed 80 polar bear cubs through their first year of life – and found only two survived.

Through a dramatic wraparound film at the International Polar Bear Conservation Centre and a series of interactive displays, visitors learn that the polar bear is entirely dependent on ice for survival.

"When sea ice shrinks," Dr. Joseph says, "it shrinks the length of time that the bears can feed. It gets shorter. During the off-season, the bear is denned up. It's trying to do as little as possible. It loses a huge amount of its body fat. And if that time between its next feed gets a month longer, it could increase mortality incredibly. One single horrific climate event could knock this polar bear population down to half in one year.

"This is something that could be very discouraging. But from my viewpoint, this is a chance for us to make a difference. This is a chance for us to connect with people, to connect with children and say, 'Let's look at how we live. Let's look at what we can do to make this a better world.'"

The centre is deliberately targeting children, fully aware that there is a magical connection between the cuddly, entertaining orphan cubs and young visitors. There is even a chance for children to get involved in "citizen science" where research scientists engage them in a Where's Waldo? search of aerial photographs for signs of bear activity.

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"Children are the audience," Dr. Joseph says. "Adults are the audience, too, but if you think about who is going to change the world, they are the ones who have the open minds and open hearts. They are the ones who can make a true difference. So if you can reach that audience when they are little and you can start messaging 'Let's think about this,' 'Let's make good choices,' then when they get to be in decision-making capacities, they'll make good choices."

There are, of course, critiques. Some in Churchill fear that the centre will attract tourists who might otherwise come to their northern community where some 900 polar bears are a major summer attraction.

"This is not about breaching the trip to Churchill," Dr. Joseph counters. "This is about teaching the 750,000 people who live in Winnipeg, most of whom are never going to go to Churchill, as well as other Canadians. We would like those people to come here to see the polar bears and say, 'I want to know more. I want to go to Churchill and see what it's like there.'"

There are also the animal activists who believe no wild animals should be penned. "In a perfect world," Dr. Joseph says, "we wouldn't need zoos and aquariums. I'd rather have polar bears live in the world. I'd rather have them live safely in the wild. I'd rather the oceans were full of fish. But we don't live in a perfect world. We live in a world where we haven't taken good care of it. And we need to find ways to inspire one another to take better care of the world."

One critic suggested it would have been better to allow the wolves that had been tracking Blizzard and Star to kill and eat them – as wolves need to survive as well. "My response was twofold," Dr. Joseph says. "If I was able to give Star and Blizzard a choice between being eaten by the wolves or having an environment like this to live in, I think they'd probably vote for this. And two, if they were eaten by the wolves, how does that inspire people to live differently?"

Dr. Joseph is acutely aware that one cannot fake climate change. "But what you can do is you can tell a story," he says. "Most people learn by stories. And the story has to be compelling. If I tell you that the world's oceans are acidifying by a pH unit of .1 every 10 years, that's not very compelling. But if I tell you that polar bears are a threatened species because of climate change, I think that's a more compelling story. That's a reason to care.

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"To me, it's not about teaching facts as much as it is about inspiring people to care and make good choices in their lives."

On a cold, sharp late November morning, there are few visitors to the Journey to Churchill. Workers scurry about. An elderly couple, bundled up to twice their bulk, move along slowly. A young family with a mesmerized toddler is at a window watching three polar bears comically roughhouse over which one owns a ragged rubber bucket.

"We have to 'repurpose' the zoo," Dr. Joseph says. Come in summer and people will see summer animals. While the wolves and muskox will be huddled in a corner in the shade, the polar bears will stick to the cool waters of the massive pool.

Come in winter, however, and it feels like you are yourself out on the tundra, with wolves and their thick winter coats staring down from a precipice, Arctic foxes dancing lightly through the snow and the polar bears seemingly close enough to touch – yet thankfully not close enough to touch you.

"The beauty of this exhibit is that the animals involved are incredibly active in cold weather," Ms. Redmond says. "Now that we've got Journey to Churchill open, we're excited about winter."

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