I’ve done a lot of these posts, now, so every time I start a new one I go back and check to see what information I’ve used about the featured animal(s) previously. Considering how much time I have spent with these beautiful animals over the past six years, I was very surprised to find I had only written about them twice before: for last year’s Baby Calendar, and for my sole calendar of 2016. The post about Juno, as you might imagine, mainly consisted of information about her. The photo of Aurora in 2016 led to a post about all six of the bears that have inhabited the Tundra Trek at various times since I began to train as a Volunteer in 2012. Luckily, that one was more photo-heavy, so I didn’t use up too many of my stories of these bears then. Additionally, a lot has transpired since that first post and I have some brand-new stories about polar bears to share. But the very best story – about Nikita – I am going to save until she makes her solo appearance in next year’s calendar. Sorry… but I think you’ll agree when you read it that it was worth the wait!
Aurora and Nikita first arrived at the Toronto Zoo in the early spring of 2001. They were found as orphans, wandering around together in Polar Bear Provincial Park near James Bay, in Northern Ontario. It is estimated that they were born the previous December and they had recently emerged from their den with their mother to forage, only to have her shot by a hunter. Quick side note here: a limited number of licenses to hunt polar bears are issued each year to the Inuit population; the provision is that they are not to be used to kill mothers with cubs and, if this accidentally happens, it is to be immediately reported to the Ministry of Natural Resources so that the cubs can be rescued. I cannot seem to find information on whether this is what happened or if the cubs were simply discovered by fluke. Whatever the case, MNR officials contacted the Toronto Zoo because cubs orphaned at such a young age will not be able to acquire the skills to survive in the wild and, therefore, must move to protected habitat, such as a Zoo or other sanctuary. The Toronto Zoo had already housed other orphans over the previous 20 years, such as Sanikiluaq and Bisitik – who arrived in 1980 – and Kunik, who I believe arrived later. I’ve tried to do some research on who lived in the polar bear exhibit when Aurora and Nikita arrived but it’s been very difficult to uncover the information I have been looking for. Perhaps my friends who possess this knowledge will weigh in and I can update this page later. In any event, when Sarah and I took my kids to see the new stars in the summer of 2001, they did not disappoint. The above is a shot of one of the cubs (judging solely on her behaviour while I was taking photos, I am leaning toward it being Nikita) and in it you can see the nascent beginnings of a love I would later foster as a Volunteer.
The girls spent barely a year in Toronto before they were “loaned out” to the Polar Bear Habitat in Cochrane, Ontario because they had become too big to stay in the nursery area of the Toronto Zoo’s polar bear exhibit, and there were three full-grown bears already in the larger area. I visited Cochrane in the summer of 2017 and the Habitat there is absolutely outstanding, run by brilliant Keepers and with several acres of land which even includes its own lake! It is currently populated by Inukshuk (another Toronto Zoo “loaner”), his son, Ganuk, and Henry, who was born at Sea World in Australia, and the photos and videos they regularly release on their website and Facebook page are heart-warming and fun.
Before they left for Cochrane, however, they were stars in Toronto. Here is a short clip from the CBC archives of how they looked when they first greeted the public in May, 2001. (I would have embedded this, but it refused to work. I really don’t recommend using WordPress for your website’s back-end: it:s been nothing but headaches for me since day one. Anyhow…onward and upward!)
When the gals returned to Toronto in July of 2009, there were two surprises waiting for them. First, the Zoo had closed the old polar bear exhibit about 18 months earlier and were poised to open a brand-new region: the Tundra Trek. At a cost of around $10 million dollars, this promised to be a wonderful new showcase for the animals of Canada’s North, with a new polar bear exhibit that was five times larger than the one the girls left behind. But I’ll bet that wasn’t their favourite surprise. Inukshuk, a bear who had also been rescued from certain death as an orphan in 2003, had returned to Toronto from Zoo Sauvage in St-Félicien, Québec just 10 days earlier and would soon be joining them in the hopes of starting a breeding program. Inukshuk has a fascinating backstory and it was featured in an episode of Growing Up Animal Planet a few years ago. The video was discovered by a good friend of mine in November of this year and I have already watched it three times as of this writing. I’ll link to it here; embedding it is unreasonable as the full show is over 42 minutes long. But please watch it here on YouTube when you have the time. It’s brilliant – and there are bonus glimpses of Nikita and Aurora as cubs in it!
Over time, those cubs grew up to be beautiful adult bears.
But they have always loved each other like the sisters they are, even though they have very different personalities. Aurora, for example, loves spending time in the pool, is the only one to bear (tee hee) any offspring, and is fairly calm and docile. Nikita, on the other hand, seems to enter the water only as a last resort, was far more interested in Inukshuk when he was in Toronto, and is the dominant of the two when it comes to food, going in and out of doors, pretty much everything. Interestingly – to me, at least – when Inukshuk was in town but separated from the girls, Nikita would sit for hours and watch him on the other side of the fence, while Aurora couldn’t be bothered. Ever since he has gone back to Cochrane and the cubs have returned (all three are back here now), Aurora has been the one to sit still and watch the boys in the opposite exhibit, while Nikita has no interest at all. Each of the cubs was hand-raised and none of them spent more than about 24 hours with Aurora after being born; however, it seems pretty clear to me that she recognizes something about them, even now.
Speaking of breeding: I do have one favourite story I would like to share here. Back when I was a Program Leader for the Toronto Zoo my morning tours would often wind up at the polar bears, who have a feeding and Keeper Talk at noon every day. On one occasion, I was leading a class of Grade Two students from a Catholic School around the Zoo and we had had a late start to the morning. I suggested that we see the polar bears after the talk on the way back for our lunch, as it would be less crowded and, in any event, I’ve seen that talk so many times I could give it myself, so I could fill in all the missing info for the kids. What I said to them was: “Let’s visit them after they’ve had lunch, and then we can go eat.” I’m very glad this was the phrasing I used, because it came in handy a few minutes later. As our little group approached the exhibit, I caught a glimpse of Inukshuk and one of the girls – I was never sure which one – in flagrante delicto, shall we say, although temporarily paused with Inuk behind his chosen partner, both of them watching us come nearer. I turned to the teacher and asked her if she wanted to proceed, trying to be subtle around the kids. I was a bit too subtle, though, because she didn’t understand my question. So I gestured toward the bears and asked again, should we keep going or move on? Before she could grasp what I was saying, the children caught sight of the bears and excitedly raced forward to see them, and the decision was made for us. As their little faces pressed against the glass, Inukshuk and “friend” staring right back at them, posed for action, with the teacher looking as pale as the bears, I attempted to distract them with everything at my disposal: signage at the exhibit, some fur I had brought along, the wolves behind us, anything I could use. Nearby were two teenaged gals about to bust a gut from giggling at my predicament and I had run out of options when one of the young lads at the window turned to me with a question. Luckily, it wasn’t “what are they doing?” or any form of that query; what he asked me was, “why aren’t they going in the water?” Flashing back to my reasoning for getting there when we did, I immediately replied, “Remember I told you they just finished lunch? You know you can’t go in the water for a while after you’ve just eaten, right?” This answer satisfied his curiosity perfectly, and somehow not one other student asked any more questions. The girls’ mouths dropped open, I pretended to wipe my brow, the teacher began to breathe again. Still one of the most brilliant responses I’ve ever given.
I’ll finish up with a couple of comment about this month’s photo, which you can revisit at the top of this page. The photo at left here was taken a few seconds before the one I used; you can see quite clearly that it is not, in fact, snowing at the time I visited the girls. Rather, Nikita had been rolling in the snow on the ground and become covered in bits of ice and snow. Right after Aurora came over and nuzzled her, Nikita proceeded to shake her whole body, flinging the loose snow and ice everywhere. Aurora’s tongue being out in the featured photo, while appearing to be her commentary on the blizzard that seems to be hitting town, is actually just a case of lucky timing during the Nikita-induced barrage. And, speaking of that tongue, this has always been the best way to tell the sisters apart: Aurora’s tongue has prominent areas of pink while Nikita’s is completely purple. (The two boy cubs share this difference: Hudson’s tongue is almost completely pink, while Humphrey’s is purple.)
Well! Another year nearly done! Thank you all for coming along for the ride. Next year, I’ve decided to go with just one calendar instead of two, so there will only be 12 posts instead of 24. This will free me up for other things, which may at some point include a few “random” posts when I have something I am dying to tell you. We’ll see what 2019 brings. Until then, the best of the season to all of you, and a very Happy New Year!