Polar bears are highly specialized to their constantly changing environment. They spend months roaming the sea ice, often covering hundreds or even thousands of kilometres in the search for food. In the spring, they can do the same to find mates.
With proper behavioural management practices, we can eliminate the need for polar bears living in human care (like at the Habitat) to spend so much time and physical/mental energy on these tasks .
However, other challenges can arise.
The Canadian Polar Bear Habitat offers the most space in the world to polar bears in human care. Still, the enclosures are not as vast as the Arctic landscape. There are space and resource restrictions involved with caring for any animal, and those can lead to a stagnant environment.
One approach to this issue is enrichment.
At its simplest, an enrichment is really anything that provides mental and physical stimulus – even better if it encourages the natural behaviours of an animal.
The most obvious examples are man-made objects – some of the favourites at the Habitat include buckets, barrels, balls, and crates. We also often use cardboard boxes, rope, tires, fabric, firehose, and (new) jerry cans. With all these examples, we make sure the items are clean – including removing tape and labels – and have all the small parts removed to ensure a bear doesn’t swallow them.
We can also offer the bears with a number of naturally-occurring objects to provide novel objects and sensations. This includes things like branches (willow and birch are favourites), leaves, herbs, spices, straw, wood chips, water, ice, and snow. Additionally, we can add natural items to man-made objects or manipulate the naturally-occurring elements of the bears’ environments, like when we create leaf or snow piles, cut the grass, putt logs in ice, and make snow men.
Our goal when designing these types of enrichments is to engage the bears’ senses and encourage the expression of natural behaviours, including investigating, swimming, rolling, crushing, and problem solving.
One of the great advantages of offering the bears so much natural space to roam is that they also have access to a number of elements that change regularly. For example, the 10-acre lake goes from water with live fish and cattails in the summer to an ice platform in the winter to a slushy playground in the spring.
Fresh grass grows in the spring. There are raspberry and Saskatoon berry bushes in the enclosures that bear fruit every summer. Leaves fall from trees in the fall. Year-round, other animals and birds also make the Habitat home, sometimes living alongside the bears and sometimes being hunted by them.
Of course, there are other ways we regularly enrich the bears’ lives, including housing them together with different bears on different days in different enclosures. We also offer daily training sessions to the bears.
Enrichments are a critical aspect of ensuring an animal’s physical and mental well-being, so they’re a major focus of our Animal Care Staff.
You can watch Amy create an enrichment and see Inukshuk’s reaction on our YouTube channel. The second video also shows a number of other enrichments we have created or manipulated for the bears in the past.