How a visit to Assiniboine Park and Zoo in Winnipeg changed how I think about zoos

Journey to Churchill | Assiniboine Park and Zoo | Winnipeg, Manitoba

Let me start out by saying that I’ve never been a “zoo person”. It has always pained me to see majestic creatures penned in captivity. I realize many zoos do great conservation work and also genuinely care for the animals’ well-being. However, I made a personal decision several years ago to not support zoos in general.

Earlier this year, I traveled to Winnipeg on a media trip hosted by Travel Manitoba. As such, the folks at Travel Manitoba designed an itinerary for my visit. Imagine my internal conflict when I saw “Assiniboine Park and Zoo” on my itinerary. Should I reply to Travel Manitoba and inform them of my feelings about zoos? Or do I visit the zoo with an open mind and chalk it up to experience? Not wanting to run the risk of upsetting the apple cart, so to speak, and seeming ungrateful, I decided to go through with the itinerary as planned and visit the zoo. Then when I realized the purpose of the zoo visit was to experience the polar bear exhibit, Journey to Churchill, I actually began to look forward to it. As much as I’d love to travel to Churchill, Manitoba, and take part in a polar bear safari, the Journey to Churchill exhibit could have been my only chance to get up close to polar bears.

Sea Ice Passage | Journey to Churchill | Assiniboine Park and Zoo | Winnipeg, Manitoba

Sea Ice Passage (Photo property of Assiniboine Park and Zoo)

From the very beginning of our Journey to Churchill experience, it was clear that it wasn’t just about looking at some cute polar bears. Assiniboine and Journey to Churchill have a mission: to raise awareness of the devastating effects of climate change. As far as I’m concerned, the topic of climate change is not a political one; as residents of Earth, it is our reality. At Gateway to the Arctic, the prime polar bear viewing area of the exhibit, climate change facts are presented via interpretive media and may challenge the way you think.

Sea Ice Passage | Journey to Churchill | Assiniboine Park and Zoo | Winnipeg, Manitoba

It was in Sea Ice Passage, the underwater viewing tunnel, where I started to become a bit emotional. We learned that the polar bears at Assiniboine were rescued from the Churchill area as cubs because they had been orphaned. Experts agree that polar bears under the age of two, orphaned in the wild, have no chance for survival. The Zoo’s Polar Bear Rescue Team observed the zoo’s current cubs in the wild for several days, realized they had been orphaned, and took action. The cubs were rescued and transported to Assiniboine’s Leatherdale International Polar Bear Conservation Centre. It’s at Leatherdale that the cubs are transitioned, under the watchful eye of Manitoba Conservation and Water Stewardship, to life in a captive environment. As we watched the polar bears swim and play in their award-winning zoo environment, I was deeply saddened by the thought of all the cubs that have been orphaned because their habitat is disappearing, and by the fact that not all orphaned cubs can be rescued.

Aurora Borealis Theatre | Journey to Churchill | Assiniboine Park and Zoo | Winnipeg, Manitoba

Aurora Borealis Theatre (Photo property of Assiniboine Park and Zoo)

We then moved into the Aurora Borealis Theatre for a viewing of the feature film, Rhythms of the North. The film is projected onto a 360-degree screen, immersing visitors into the Arctic landscape and providing a close look at life for the animals and people of Canada’s north. It was while viewing this film that I really became emotional. The narrator, a Cree elder, talks about the importance of the land to her people. “Always be respectful… because the Earth is alive, like us, and everything is connected.” Without using a term like “climate change”, the narrator explained how the land has changed over the years, impacting her people’s traditions and the lives of the animals.

My family used to travel up the coast to our summer camp. When I was [younger], we’d have to wait until August because there was still so much ice. But now, the bay opens up much earlier… , and the beluga arrive sooner.

During the fall, hungry polar bears wait along the coast for the ice to return. The bears wait longer now than when I was a little girl.. because freeze up comes much later.

Winter opens up the land. To me, winter means freedom. But we have to be careful. The ice isn’t always safe the way it used to be.

The Cree woman’s words are accompanied by images of polar bears stranded on ice floes, unable to move about as they did years ago. The warmer temperatures in the Arctic are causing the sea ice platforms to melt and separate, thereby reducing the bears’ hunting opportunities and food sources. Furthermore, the larger gaps of open water make swimming conditions significantly more perilous for the bears. Mother bears are required to swim for several days at a time now, in order to find food for themselves and their cubs. Most often, the mothers lose significant portions of their body weight and don’t have the energy to safely navigate the waters. It’s no wonder so many polar bear cubs are being orphaned…

I stood in that theater, wiping the tears from my face, absolutely moved by the film’s words and images. That was the moment my whole view on zoos changed. I thought to myself, “Everyone needs to see this film, to hear the Cree woman’s words, and to see how we are negatively impacting the lives of these people and these precious creatures.” As a lifelong ally of wildlife and nature conservation, I pledged to support Assiniboine and Journey to Churchill for their commitment to public education and promoting personal action.

My visit to Assiniboine coincided with the recent change in administration of the United States, one that put an individual in charge who believes climate change is a hoax. The film’s message could not have been more timely. Since then, the Cree woman’s closing words have haunted me:

Always be respectful of the Earth and protect it. If you use it in the right way, it will be here for your children, and your children’s children.

More about Assiniboine Park and Zoo

  • Journey to Churchill has received Exhibit Award Top Honours by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA); Thomas R. Baines Award for outstanding achievement by Canada’s Accredited Zoos and Aquariums (CAZA); and Innovation Award by Travel Manitoba.
  • Also part of Journey to Churchill is Wapusk Lowlands where visitors encounter snowy owls, Arctic fox, caribou, and wolves.
  • The zoo is open 364 days a year, closed only on Christmas Day (check zoo’s website for seasonal schedules and days with reduced hours).
  • Guided group tours are available at additional costs.
  • The indoor Polar Playground lets kids actively participate in education about polar bears and other Arctic species, all while having heaps of fun!
  • Park concessions operate seasonally, and Tundra Grill, offering quick-service meals, follows the zoo’s hours of operation.

As previously stated, I was hosted on a media trip to Winnipeg by Travel Manitoba. Be assured that all thoughts, emotions, and opinions contained in this piece are, as always, 100% my own.

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17 Responses to How a visit to Assiniboine Park and Zoo in Winnipeg changed how I think about zoos

  1. Sue Reddel July 19, 2017 at 11:45 am #

    Francesca, what a wonderfully written piece. We too love animals and this “zoo” clearly is doing its best to help the animals of the region. I want to watch that movie Rhythms of the North. I hope I can find it online. Thanks so much for bringing this wonderful organization to our attention. On a side note – if you’re ever in Tampa check out Big Cat Rescue they are also doing a terrific job saving large cats from people, circuses, and badly run zoos.

    • Francesca July 20, 2017 at 6:18 pm #

      Let me know if you can find the film online, Sue. I’d love to watch it again. Thanks, too, for your kind words. We will be in the Tampa area later this year; perhaps I’ll take the kids on a day trip to Big Cat Rescue.

  2. Elaine Masters July 19, 2017 at 1:03 pm #

    Thank you for the heartfelt story. We have rescued polar bears & other creatures in the San Diego Zoo. So hard to realuze that may soon be the only place to see them alive.

    • Francesca July 20, 2017 at 6:19 pm #

      Yes, that is the difficult realization, Elaine. I’ve heard wonderful things about the San Diego Zoo, too. Perhaps it’s time we make a trip out there.

  3. Karen Murtagh July 19, 2017 at 1:56 pm #

    Very well written. I have always been awed by the beauty and strength of polar bears. I would have cried too. Adding this to my short list of places to visit. Thank you.

    • Francesca July 20, 2017 at 6:19 pm #

      Thank you, Karen. You’d love Winnipeg, and you and Rita would love Assiniboine! I hope you do get to visit.

  4. Carol Colborn July 20, 2017 at 5:06 am #

    A story well-told, a cause well explained, and a future well-thought out.

    • Francesca July 20, 2017 at 6:20 pm #

      Thank you, Carol.

  5. Kath July 20, 2017 at 6:08 pm #

    This is a great post, I often feel the same way about certain animal encounters. I love the way that you described your day and the impact of your visit. Hope I can visit this place one day.

    • Francesca July 20, 2017 at 6:20 pm #

      Thank you, Kath. I hope you get to visit Winnipeg and Assiniboine, too!

  6. Doreen Pendgracs July 20, 2017 at 8:46 pm #

    Thanks for this terrific post on Assiniboine Park. I am born a Winnipegger and still live in Manitoba, but I still haven’t been to see the polar bear exhibit. I have, however been to Churchill 6x and seen the real thing.

  7. Mindi Hirsch July 21, 2017 at 11:00 am #

    Like you, I’m not typically a “zoo person” but this zoo looks really cool, especially the polar bears. Also like you, I worry about the future of the earth with the current individual in charge. I’m counting on moms like you to help keep the world safe for humans and polar bears alike.

  8. Natasha July 21, 2017 at 8:23 pm #

    I hadn’t heard of this exhibit before! I’m very particular about the zoos and sanctuaries to visit, I’ve been a member of AZA for 5 years and they usually support the good zoos. This one looks really nice. I love when they have the underwater tanks. Zoos should bring awareness to the things that are happening to our planet- we definitely need to make a change.

  9. Lara Dunning July 21, 2017 at 10:38 pm #

    I have a really hard time visiting zoos too, as I am riddled with guilt. It’s good to know that this zoo takes a different approach and that you came away with a positive takeaway.

  10. Carmen Edelson July 22, 2017 at 2:11 pm #

    Polar bears are such amazing creatures! I’d love to see them swim and play. Thanks for sharing 🙂

  11. Chris August 8, 2017 at 10:52 am #

    Thanks for sharing this post very informative to the reality of today.


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