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Enriching the Lives of Captive Polar Bears

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“The primary goals of an enrichment program are to provide a stimulating environment that allows animals to make choices, giving them some level of control over their environment.” – Steve Martin, Natural Encounters Inc.

From catching the scent of other polar bears nearby to hunting for seals, wild polar bears are constantly enriched by their environments on a daily basis. Here at The Polar Bear Habitat we try to replicate those same behaviours by creating new enrichments daily that will mentally and physically stimulate the bears. In doing this, it helps to elicit some of those natural behaviours while still living in captivity. Enrichments also help to prevent the development or progression of abnormal, undesirable stereotypic behaviours while initiating the need to problem solve.

We focus on using three different types of enrichments – food, scents and toys. They can be used on their own or in combination with each other to create a more stimulating challenge. Some examples of enrichments we create include treats hidden in coffee cups, toilet paper rolls and boxes; hiding food in buckets around the enclosure; creating scent trails using spices and perfumes; making challenges like tying milk crates up with rope for them to pull apart or even something as simple as moving logs around the enclosures. Polar bears are sensitive to change and they are naturally curious, so by moving around logs in the enclosure they will explore to see what has changed. Sometimes we see Ganuk and Henry walking in the same path we had just taken because they can smell us and want to see what we were up to.

Polar bears have an extremely strong sense of smell. They rely on their sense of smell to sense other bears nearby and to seek out a seal lair’s. By creating scent trails, in combination with hidden food or toys, the bears are rewarded for investigating and exploring. While the only option wild polar bears have to find food is by hunting, captive polar bears can be fed in many different ways. By providing varying rates and methods at which food is offered (with the exception of morning and evening meals) this replicates what polar bears experience in the wild. Smelling and searching for food as well as not knowing at what times in the day their next meal will be are all factors that keep Ganuk and Henry stimulated. That being said, Ganuk and Henry do get fed 3-5 times a day so they also know it won’t be too long before they get to eat again, unlike wild polar bears when it could be months before their next meal.

To break through the ice to catch a seal, wild polar bears will jump up and down with their front paws. Ganuk and Henry do this same behaviour with many of their toys, destroying them in the process. Their favourite toy to jump on is 60 gallon drums! They will also roll around with the drums, bite them, scratch them and push them up against the fence. Biting and scratching at the ice is another behaviour wild bears would do to widen a seal lair so that they could pull a seal through the hole.

We also do daily training sessions to keep them mentally stimulated. Polar bears are highly intelligent animals and they can pick up new behaviours quickly. All of the training we do with Ganuk and Henry is done on a volunteer basis meaning they can choose whether or not they would like to participate in the session. Some behaviours they know include opening their mouths, showing us their paws, standing up and rolling over. This type of training (operant conditioning* using positive reinforcement**) helps with basic husbandry routines, being able to identify and address potential medical concerns before they develop and in minimizing stress related behavioural issues.

While we provide daily enrichments to Ganuk and Henry, their enclosures also provide a form of enrichment. Our enclosures have been built with the ultimate goal that they be kept as natural as possible, limiting the amount of  gunite and concrete in them. We have the ability to rotate Ganuk and Henry between our enclosures every so often; by doing this they don’t get bored which can start to produce stereotypic behaviours. Ganuk and Henry can smell each other in the enclosures and will often explore to see where the other bear has been and what they were doing while they were in the enclosure. They also get to play with new toys that they might not have had in a while and swim in a different pool. Soon Ganuk and Henry will have a brand new, 10-acre lake enclosure which will be enriching in itself. For the first time both our boys will be able to go out onto the ice in the winter and experience something very similar to what wild polar bears get every day.

Seasonal changes bring new and exciting things for our bears. Winter provides plenty of snow and ice (which polar bears thrive in), spring brings grass and plants, summer brings berries and fall brings leaves and mud. With each new season we see Ganuk and Henry doing plenty of exploring, finding new discoveries every day. This past summer you may have seen Ganuk laying around somewhere in his enclosure pulling up some grass or ripping berries off the tress. Wild polar bears will sometimes eat berries they find in the summer when they are off the ice and unable to hunt seals. In the fall Henry would dig in the mud and even with our earlier snow falls he would dig through the snow to get to the dirt underneath. Pregnant females will dig dens in the late fall to spend the next few months in where they will give birth and raise their cubs until they are old enough to start learning how to survive in the arctic. Other wild bears will sometimes make snow dens when the weather gets extremely bad to spend the night in until the storm passes. Snow dens are surprisingly warm and provide a form of insulation and protection from the adverse effects of strong winter storms.

Sometimes coming up with new and different enrichments can be challenging but the benefits are definitely rewarding! If ever Ganuk and Henry are not overly impressed by something we have given them you can be sure that they will find something in their enclosure that will be just as enriching to the boys.

*Operant Conditioning – A method of learning in which the animal makes an association between its behaviour and the consequences of that behaviour.

**Positive Reinforcement – Presenting a motivating/rewarding stimulus after the desired behaviour is exhibited.

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