Over the past seven years, since I first began my volunteer training at the Toronto Zoo, I’ve likely spent as much time with the polar bears (both on- and off-duty) as with any other animal. The Tundra Trek table is my favourite to work at – winter or summer – and the three babies that have been born to Aurora this decade have made for countless hours of entertainment and giddiness. They are also surpassingly beautiful creatures and supremely photogenic, so I have (literally) thousands of photos of the six bears who have made the Zoo their home at various times since 2012. This has also led, as one might expect, to their making many appearances in my calendars over the years, whether on the cover or for a specific month, which in turn has meant that I have written several blog posts about them to this point. (For example, here is a post from 2016 which I created on an entirely different platform.) For next year’s calendar – which you may still order on this website until at least the end of 2019 (smooth plug, right?) – I have reluctantly left them out of the choices as I felt there was nothing new to mention about them. Naturally, in the past week I have discovered that this won’t be true (I’ll talk about that shortly), but for now I will try my best to come up with some “cool” (because they’re polar bears!) content for the December 2019 post.
In looking back at last year’s December post about the sisters, I find two things leap out at me: 1) I spoke of a similar issue at that time (of having begun to run out of stories to access); and b) that story included this brilliant piece of forward-thinking on behalf of Yours Truly: “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!” Well, that’s wonderful news, because I was certain I had already told that story. Because I’m a bit of a tease, though, I will save that story until the very end of this post. Let’s build up just a little more suspense!
For now, let’s delve into the story I alluded to in the opening paragraph. On November 27, the Toronto Zoo announced through its various social media sites that a long-rumoured addition would be coming to the Tundra Trek late next spring. Through a special research partnership with the Aquarium du Quebec, there will be some retrofitting of the polar bear exhibit in Toronto, followed by a shuffling of the deck of sorts. When the dust has finally settled, Humphrey and Hudson will have departed for Quebec, while 10-year-old Taiga (who is the twin sister of Ganuk in Cochrane and, therefore, Inukshuk’s daughter) will come to Toronto to live with Juno (you can check out my story about her from 2017), Aurora, and Nikita. But why the retrofit, you may ask? Well, that is necessary to handle the needs of two females from a species brand-new to the Toronto Zoo: walruses. Lakina and Balzac, who were born in 2016 to parents Arnaliaq and Boris in Quebec, will be returning to the Aquarium du Quebec upon the completion of a two-year loan to the Vancouver Aquarium in the next few weeks. When Taiga comes to live in Toronto, she will be accompanied by 16-year-old Arnaliaq and her young daughter, Lakina, as part of a joint Research Study being carried out by the two facilities. Got all that? It’s enough to make your head spin; it might help to read the press release on the Toronto Zoo’s website, which you may access directly by clicking on the photo of Arnaliaq above.
Now, if trying to keep track of just those three institutions isn’t enough for you, there are two more locations that play at least some part in this whole story. First of all, there’s Zoo Sauvage de St-Félicien, Quebec where Taiga and Ganuk were born to Aisaqvak and Inukshuk on November 30, 2009, and where Aisaqvak bore their little half-brother (the father is Yellé) on November 27, 2018. This Zoo has been a part of the story for a great many bears in Toronto over the years and currently houses the six Arctic wolf cubs that were born here in 2018. But I want to take a few moments to talk about the other institution: the Polar Bear Habitat in Cochrane, Ontario, which has been the temporary home for Eddy and Taiga while the polar bear quarters at the Aquarium du Quebec have been undergoing renovations and a big expansion. Eddy will return to Quebec around the same time as his two new buddies, Hudson and Humphrey: sometime next year. Taiga will come directly to Toronto from Cochrane once the boys have left.
In the meantime, however, the Polar Bear Habitat is having a bit of a rough go of it. As reported by CBC in early November (complete with a photo of the wonderful Amy, Keeper in Cochrane), the town council voted (in a bit of a surprise move) to “temporarily” close the 15-year-old facility, which is the only one of its kind in the world. This would be a huge mistake at any time, but most especially in our current situation of Climate Crisis. The Board of Directors of the Habitat held a public meeting on November 17 (there’s a good summary of it here on the Timmins Daily Press site) and followed that up with three Open-Door Days at the Habitat itself. Following another public meeting, held this time by the town council to “obtain public input,” the council brought to light that it believes it needs $700,000 in next year’s budget to keep the facility open. Now, here’s the thing. I have no idea whether this figure is accurate; I know there was a huge blow to the town when the Ontario Northland train service was replaced by a bus in 2012; I understand the “attraction” has taken on a much more important (and costly) role as a premier research centre for studies on the plight of the polar bear worldwide. I am not unsympathetic to their troubles. But we simply cannot allow this amazing facility to just disappear. There should probably be joint funding allocated to the Polar Bear Habitat from government coffers at both the provincial and federal levels. Perhaps we can manage to revive the train service – if not six days a week then at least one or two. We are all awaiting a decision of some sort to be passed down on December 10; in the meantime, please feel free to email your message of support to the town (as Sarah already has) via email@example.com; or follow their site on FB; or write to your MP or MPP, encouraging them to get involved in support for the PBH; or visit the People for PBH GoFundMe page; or, at the very least, please spread the word of this situation to as many of your concerned friends as you can think of. This is an urgent problem and I really hope we can work out a way to stop this amazing and necessary facility from closing forever. Thank you for your help.
To end this year on a high note, here (as promised) is that story about Nikita.
Early in my time as a Volunteer at the Toronto Zoo (probably 2014 or so), I signed up to help out with a “Scent Study” with the polar bears. A grad student from Guelph, whose name I have sadly long forgotten, was doing some research for her thesis, I expect, and she had set up a study whereby three days a week, every week for six weeks, she would put a scent inside a tube in the polar bear enclosure and note take note of any reactions they had upon encountering the new smell. The scent was changed weekly; my commitment was to choose one of the three days and show up each week on that day for three hours to watch for any interesting interactions between Nikita or Aurora (they were the only two in residence at that time) and the odour. The tube was made out of plastic, long and narrow and containing several small holes through which the scent of whatever had been placed inside it would emit. The smells were along the lines of cinnamon and vanilla and fish and that sort of thing. Well, not at the same time, obviously. Anyhow, this sounded very interesting to me and honestly, how could it truly go wrong if my “requirement” was to spend three hours with the bears I loved? So I leapt at the chance, and my very first shift was on Day Two of the study.
I arrived at the appointed time and met the gal from Guelph in the viewing area where the Tundra Trek table lives. She gave me my instructions, along with a radio and some notepaper (I used my own watch), and asked me to wait there while she set everything up. As she had done on Day One earlier in the week, she had the Keeper bring the girls in off of exhibit and then ventured out into the small yard (the “Nursery”) to place the infused tube. The idea was to let Nikita and Aurora out of the door leading into this area, where they would more or less be forced to walk right past the cylinder on their way to the larger areas, including the big pool at the front of the main exhibit. The student put the tube down about 15 feet in front of their holding doors and made her way back to the viewing area to watch the initial reaction from the bears. Some idle chit-chat passed between us as we stood there and waited to see if the girls would react in any way once they were released from the back rooms.
Oh, there was a reaction, all right. Nikita burst out of the door and made a beeline for the tube, with a very obvious mission in mind. I imagine she was not happy with this “plaything” being nowhere near the main pool, where it clearly belonged in Nikita’s world. She pushed her nose against the cylinder and rolled it out of the mud, towards the door leading from the Nursery to the main exhibit. The first problem she encountered was a minor one: there is a little lip at the foot of the door and she had to ease the toy up onto the ledge before she could bring it any further. But then she hit a far more serious snag. The plastic container was a few inches longer than the doorway was wide, and it was Nikita’s bad luck to have rolled it over in such a way that it was perfectly centred in the gap, meaning it hit both sides of the frame as she tried to push it through. Again and again she hammered that thing into the door frame, become visibly more and more agitated and forceful with each attempt. Meanwhile, the two of us hapless humans remained on our side of the glass, inches from the tribulations but tearing our hair out because of our inability to help Nikita in any way. This seemed to go on for hours, but likely didn’t even last a full minute before Nikita, in the universal language of extreme frustration, stepped back from the tube with a huge shoulder heave and expelled a loud snort of breath. As we watched from our safe place, she took a minute to compose herself a bit, then walked forward, stepping over the object of her rage and through the doorway, lumbering back around in a big 180-degree arc on the other side. It’s from here that the story becomes positively surreal, and I will never forgive either of us for not thinking to catch the next minute or so on video.
She glared at the tube for a moment or two, shoulders hunched forward slightly in frustration, chewing her lip a little bit. Then, suddenly, she straightened up and quite visibly relaxed. There was no mistaking by any observer that the proverbial light bulb had just gone off in Nikita’s logic centre. She next moved her gaze from the tube straight up to the very top of the doorframe. I distinctly recall gasping a little bit, then holding my breath. This amazing bear then looked back down at the cylinder, then over to the edge of the frame and all around its rectangular circumference. Again, I have to stress: there was absolutely no mistaking her intent as she processed this information, lest anyone pass this off as some sort of “fluke.” And then she did something that I will never forget for the rest of my days. She reached back through the door, spun the cylinder 90 degrees, grabbed the far end so it would clear the step, and then flipped the tube vertically through the door, where it landed on the slope and rolled into the pool, with a satisfied Nikita hot on its heels. I do not know how much time passed before either of us could manage a word. I do know that I spoke first, and I asked the student if she had done that before. I was answered with a fervent shake of the head. What we had clearly witnessed – and, again, there was absolutely no way to misinterpret what we saw of her body language or intent – was Nikita working out a two-step logic problem all at once and not being in the least surprised that it worked just how she planned it when the tube wound up in the pool. This was one of many life-changing moments I experience in my early years at the Zoo, for it was then that I decided to completely eliminate any previously held ideas I might have had about the intelligence of any animal – and I already knew them to be a lot smarter than we gave them credit for. It was at that exact moment that I became a true “ethologist,” even though it would be several more years before I knew the name for it.
Should anyone reading this have any interest in pursuing this field of endeavour (or just learning more about it), I highly recommend the book Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? by the brilliant primatologist, Frans de Waal. It’s an incredible, albeit slightly dense, read by one of the greatest minds in the field of Animal Studies.
Phew. I only wrote that story out for you all and, as usual when I retell it, I find myself covered in goosebumps. It remains one of the most exciting things I have ever witnessed in my life.
That brings the 2019 calendars posts to an end. I will pick right up where I left off in January, with the story of an animal who is very new to the Zoo, though her species is not. I hope you’ll join me then.
All the best of the season to you and yours, have a happy and safe New Year’s Eve (for those on the Gregorian calendar), and let’s hope for a much better world in 2020 and beyond. See you on the other side!
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