My journey through Manitoba had a spectacular start on our first official day with a trip to Assiniboine Park Zoo and Fort Whyte Wildlife Refuge. Let’s start with Assiniboine Park Zoo, which began as a humble collection of native animals in 1904 and grew into a world class facility that strives to provide the closest to natural habitat open air enclosures for their animal residents as well as conduct research to ensure that all the animals, but in particular the Canadian polar bear population remains healthy. It’s name, Assiniboine comes from the Ojibwe First Nation people, and it means “stone Sioux.” .
I hesitate to use the word zoo – for some, including myself the images that come to mind are iron cages in which wildlife pace in agitation. Happily the cages are now gone and in their place are sprawling landscapes that mimic the natural habitat of wildlife. While this means that the visibility for us humans may be more difficult as the land is wide-ranging, knowing that the animals are healthy and content makes it all worthwhile.
And, if you are really patient – and lucky – you do get to spy some stunning creatures and even manage a photo or two. Let me share some of my favorites.
MUSK OX – This massive mammal is neither an ox, or a cow or a bison cousin, despite its size and looks. It’s closest relative is the goat.
This elk certainly looks like he could be one of Santa’s reindeer – or upon second look I think it is a ringer for Kristoff’s Sven:
This snowy owl was hiding behind bushes and trees and I was only able to get this one fairly clear shot – he is a beauty:
The arctic wolves were also difficult to photograph – to protect them as well as the viewing humans, there were chain link fences separating us from their grassy, hilly enclosure. After a bit of experimenting I was able to do a reverse focus that pretty much eliminated the fence:
At Fort Whyte Reserve I was quite surprised at how close we were able to get to a herd of bison – but we were in a van that could quickly close its doors and leave the area if the guide felt the bison were getting restive. Instead, all was peaceful and we enjoyed each other’s company:
video courtesy of Lenore
Lenore also provided a great clip that can be used as a meditation exercise or an alternative to counting sheep:
Now I would not be honest if I did not state that my most wanted sighting was of course a polar bear, since 1) they were one of the reasons I had decided to visit sub-arctic Manitoba and 2) Assiniboine is world renowned for its polar bear facilities. The enclosures are expansive and include pools, rugged landscapes and shaded dens to provide the polar bears with a stimulating environment inspired by their natural habitat and plenty of space for exercise, exploration and socialization. The Assiniboine Park Zoo also has a Polar Bear Conservation Centre which does research and education and is also a transition facility that is the first home for polar bears before they are transitioned to Churchill Manitoba (more on Churchill to come).
The polar bear enclosures are so large, in fact that for the first hour or so that we were there we did not see one bear. Ever hopeful we continued on our tour and when it was time to turn back to head out to Fort Whyte – we tried once more and despite the somewhat blurry scratched glass guards – we were quite thrilled at our first full on look at Manitoba’s polar bears:
If you are patient, in a later post I will share some wild polar bears sightings – at a safe distance, of course.
Some may surprise you.