Journey to Churchill exhibit disappointing

Commentary by Rob Laidlaw

Originally posted October 20, 2014

During a recent visit to Winnipeg, Manitoba, I stopped in at the Assiniboine Park Zoo to have a look at their new Journey to Churchill exhibit. Reportedly constructed at a cost of $80 million, the exhibit complex is the first phase (along with a new zoo entranceway) of the zoo’s planned redevelopment.

As expected, Journey to Churchill has been big news in Winnipeg. It became an especially hot news item when some Arctic wolves dug under the wall separating their space from an adjacent polar bear paddock, and then again, when a polar bear chewed through some waterproofing sealant on the underwater visitor viewing tunnel forcing its closure. But, I expect that like most of the expensive, new attraction exhibits that populate zoos across the continent, there won’t be too many more of those kinds of incidents and the novelty factor that accompanies any new development will gradually wear off and in time Journey to Churchill will fade into the news background.

Before I made my visit I checked the zoo’s website to see what they were saying about Journey to Churchill. It said the exhibit brings the magic of the north to the heart of Manitoba and that it is the most comprehensive project ever undertaken in Canada aimed at issues related to climate change, polar bears and other northern species. So I entered the zoo with a glimmer of hope that the exhibit would, even in a small way, live up to its hype and, more importantly, that it would provide superior conditions for the animals, which include, not just polar bears, but Arctic wolves, Arctic foxes, ringed seals, caribou, musk ox and snowy owls. I also hoped that, if nothing else, it would have a strong conservation “call to action” component. How disappointed I was.

During the past 30 years I’ve visited Arctic displays (and polar bear exhibits), both good and bad, in zoos around the world. To me Journey to Churchill seemed like little more than a slightly more grandiose rehash of what already exists in other zoos in North America and elsewhere.

At a reported 10 acres in size, Journey to Churchill sounds large (and, for a zoo, it is a rather sizeable exhibit complex), but a substantial amount of space, perhaps the majority, isn’t allocated to the animals at all. Visitor pathways, viewing stations, galleries, washrooms, bleachers, concession areas, a movie theatre, children’s play areas, a facsimile of the Town of Churchill, with a gift store and 200 seat Tundra Grill restaurant, keeper service areas, gardens, planted buffer regions, and other such features and infrastructure, consume a substantial portion of that purported 10 acres. Looking at the exhibit map, it appeared the polar bears had been allocated approximately 1/3 of the exhibit complex’s space and even that was subdivided into three pens, as well as some off-exhibit pens in another part of the complex.

One of the most obvious features of Journey to Churchill, impossible for any visitor to overlook, was gunite (a mixture of cement, sand and water that is applied with a pressure hose). It was everywhere. Used to create fake rocks, rocky outcrops and cliffs, gunite is most often used to cover, and therefore hide, infrastructure. It’s also used to create cave-like alcoves for public viewing (a design strategy meant to “frame” animals so that when visitors see them they appear to be in a natural setting). But the gunite was excessive and didn’t look very real. I thought it made the entire complex look more like the set of a new Flintstones movie than anything actually found in nature.

There were also many expensive design features, such as the giant acrylic viewing windows and an underwater visitor viewing tunnel, dubbed the Sea Ice Passage, but, unfortunately, they had no real relevance to the animals. They were features meant to enhance the visitor experience, not to enrich the lives of the animals.

The Town of Churchill facsimile, with its rail car, helicopter and inukshuks seemed to be little more than a giant visitor photo prop and looked a lot like part of a movie-set. Inside the village’s Tundra Grill restaurant, I saw that the back wall of windows was actually part of the barrier separating restaurant patrons from the polar bear pen on the other side of the glass. I suppose it might be nice to sit inside munching a plate of French fries while watching polar bears, but I have to wonder how that might affect the bears. Most animals enjoy their privacy. Does this seemingly intrusive design feature rob the bears of their privacy or force them to move to other areas of the enclosure?

Certainly the actual living spaces of the current collection of animals is improved over the conditions experienced by the animals who preceded them. I remember just a few years ago seeing the zoo’s brown bears and polar bears in antiquated, grotto enclosures, consisting of little more than a slab of concrete, surrounding by gunite walls and a moat at the front. So things are better, but for wide-ranging Arctic animals, the new exhibits are still not particularly large and they’re rather bleak. I watched one ringed seal swimming the same repetitive, stereotypic pattern over and over again. Nothing in the tank was there to interrupt the pattern or to encourage the seal to engage in normal behaviours.

What was particularly alarming, given the zoo’s promotional claims, was the paucity of information about how to help polar bears, other arctic animals and the environment they inhabit. When I entered Journey to Churchill, a sign welcomed me to explore Manitoba’s Subarctic region and said I would “Learn how we can work together to protect it.” But I saw just two signs (and I believe I saw them all) that had a few throwaway suggestions on how I could help. They included inflate my car tires properly, wash my clothes in cold water, drive one day less per week and adjust my thermostat. Really! Is that it? No hard hitting messages or calls to action were evident.
There seemed to be no attempt anywhere, or at least none that I could find, to convey what is really going to be required to turn things around (assuming they can be), no direct connections to “real” conservation initiatives and, perhaps most importantly, nothing encouraging zoo visitors to voice their concerns to our government or to urge elected officials to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, support international efforts to battle climate change and to facilitate innovation in industry to reduce our national carbon footprint. I thought the environmental messaging was weak and easy to overlook or ignore. And even if every person who visited the exhibit, read the signs and followed what was suggested, it wouldn’t make a whit of difference. How sad.

I had hopes that the 9 minute film playing in the Borealis Theatre, a high domed room with a 360 degree screen, would contain some hard hitting environmental information and a strong call to action, but it was benign and soft-pedaled an environmental message. I came away thinking it was more like a travel promotion for Churchill than anything else.

I also searched for any mention I could find about the welfare of polar bears or even animal welfare generally, but not much there either. Other than a single mention of “well-being” on one sign in the zoo’s International Polar Bear Conservation Center, I didn’t see welfare mentioned anywhere. But I did find lots of information about how the zoo had set up a program to accept polar bears from the wild, so they could be “rehabilitated” to life in captivity. Given what we now know about the behavioural ecology and natural history of polar bears and their history of suffering in captivity, I found it remarkable the zoo would claim that wild polar bears could be “rehabilitated” for life in captivity. It’s certainly not what most people think of when they think of wildlife rehabilitation.

Before plans for Journey to Churchill were finalized, Zoocheck met with zoo officials and proposed something profoundly different from what they eventually built. We suggested they construct a “northern bear rescue center” right in the zoo. It would have been a stand alone facility featuring large naturalistic pens for black, brown and polar bears who had been rescued from substandard zoos or that were being rehabilitated for release back into the wild. The facility would have controlled viewing that wasn’t intrusive to the animals and wouldn’t impact on their behaviour.
A range of interpretive displays would feature relevant, current information, challenge visitors to get involved politically, provide opportunities for them to directly support arctic wildlife and environmental campaigns and field initiatives that actually help bears, other northern animals or the places in which they live. Visitors would be slowed down, so instead of them moving rapidly from one viewing station or display to another, they would be engaged and able to take in far more. There would no gunite, no silly photo props, no fake inukshuks, no giant windows, no viewing tunnel, and no restaurant overlooking the bear pen. The northern bear rescue center would have been a low tech, naturalistic facility that focused on the biological, behavioural and social needs of bears and that served a productive and much-needed purpose. And it would have cost just a tiny fraction of what Journey to Churchill did.

I find it particularly sad that formerly wild bears now populate Journey to Churchill, brought into captivity under the guise of “rescue.” So far, they’ve been orphaned cubs that the Manitoba government has provided to the zoo. Certainly it’s a plus for the zoo because they can populate their exhibit and then claim they are saving bears that would otherwise face an uncertain fate in the wild. But what exactly are they being rescued to? They may be alive, but do they have much of a life being in a cage in Winnipeg? And doesn’t sending bears to the zoo relieve pressure on the Government of Manitoba to come up with better, alternative solutions for orphaned cubs or needy adults, or to actually solve the problems that put those bears into that situation in the first place?

Some people predict that the number of wild polar bear cubs in need is going to rise, so what happens when the zoo is full? The problems wild polar bears face will still be there because incarcerating bears in a zoo in Winnipeg does nothing to solve them. Perhaps sending bears to zoos just buys the Government time, allowing the problems that wild bears face to get worse in the process.

What is most sad is to me is that polar bears and the Arctic need help now, but as far as I can see Journey to Churchill won’t help very much at all. Sure, a few visitors might remember a factoid or two about polar bear feet or musk ox fur, but so what. That kind of information can obtained in a minute or two on the internet or in a children’s book about wildlife. Even fewer zoo visitors will be motivated to actually change their behaviour or get involved. We know there are grave threats, including climate change, that challenge wild animals and the environments in which they live. We also know what has to be done, and it’s not just wash your clothes in cold water and drive your car a bit less. If Journey to Churchill is the best the Assiniboine Park Zoo and the zoo community can do to help polar bears, I think we may as well start saying our goodbyes now.