At least three-fifths of the world’s polar bears – 15,000 of them — make their home in Canada. However Hudson’s predecessor – the beloved Debbie – was a Russian immigrant, arriving at Winnipeg’s zoo around 1967.
I have had a love of polar bears since I was a small child. To observe this magnificent animal against a backdrop of white snow and ice is to enjoy a glorious sight.
People in other parts of the world have a fascination with our polar bears, too, and wonder how this animal can survive in such a harsh environment. They probably have the same question about us Manitobans. Like polar bears we have had to learn to adapt to our cold winters. Growing up on the prairies, we played outdoor games and made the most of our winter season.
Layers of hair for warmth
We have adjusted to our cold climate by learning to layer our clothing on a cold day. We wear our “polar fleece” clothing to keep warm and fend off the big chill. Polar bears essentially layer as well. They have two coats that cover their black skin to protect it. They have a fuzzy colorless undercoat (think of it as a polar bear’s long johns) and over that is a thick long covering of guard hairs which are also colorless.
The undercoat traps air next to the skin and the long hairs, which are like tiny straws, repel water. This layering helps to keep the bear warm and dry.
We Manitobans, too, prefer a “dry cold” and can feel chilled when we have a “damp cold” day in winter. Thankfully we don’t have to plunge into cold water in winter to get our food.
Did you know that a polar bear’s paws can measure up to one foot across? These large paws help to distribute the huge amount of weight the bear carries when it’s running across the frozen tundra. This would be somewhat like our wearing snowshoes to move quickly across the snow.
The sheer size of the polar bear is intimidating, but as a child I thought the little ears and tail made the bears seem cute. I didn’t know there was a practical side to these features. Small ears and a small tail mean there is less surface area to keep warm, and the bear is therefore less prone to heat loss. Bears have another special attribute working for them in the northern existence: an incredible sense of smell. They can pick up the scent of a seal from 20 miles away.
According to Environment Canada our country is home to approximately 15,500 of the estimated 20,000 to 25,000 polar bears in global polar regions. Churchill has earned its nicknamed as the “Polar Bear Capital of the World”.
Live into their teens
The polar bear’s normal lifespan in the wild is 15 to 18 years, though some bears have been tagged in their early 30s, both in the wild and in captivity, and Winnipeg had the distinction of having in captivity the world’s oldest polar bear. Born the in the Soviet Arctic in 1966, Debbie was an orphan when she came to Canada at the age of one. Debby lived to age 42 at the Assiniboine Park Zoo; she was diagnosed as suffering from multiple organ failure and euthanized.
Hudson, a 15-month-old polar cub born in captivity at the Toronto Zoo is the first polar bear to inhabit the newly opened polar bear conservation centre at the Winnipeg zoo. Both this centre and the “Journey to Churchill” exhibit, set to open in 2014, will be integral to research, environment education and conservation of polar bears and other wildlife.
I encourage you to welcome Hudson, our new Manitoban, by visiting him at the Assiniboine Park Zoo. For more information please check the zoo website at http://www.assiniboineparkzoo.ca.
Myrna Driedger is MLA for Charleswood and deputy leader of the provincial Conservative party.