Polar Bear Camp for Keepers

We landed in Churchill on a turbo prop plane at 9:30 this morning, eager to start our adventure at Polar Bears International’s Keeper Leadership Camp. Upon arrival, the group was loaned Canada Goose Chilliwack parkas to keep us warm on our journey. We headed into the Polar Bear Capital of the World for the first time on a Tundra Buggy® vehicle. The dirt roads along the way were lined with Canada geese and snow geese. Churchill served as a thriving Canadian armed services base during WWII as well as a rocket research center until the late 1960s. Today, this small community of 850 people relies on ecotourism as its major economic activity. Each year, thousands of tourists flock to Churchill to observe beluga whales, birds, and polar bears. The lives of the local people are intertwined with the polar bear population along the Hudson Bay.


As part of our tour, we arrived at the Polar Bear Holding Facility just in the nick of time to see a helicopter lifting a sedated polar bear for release farther north along the Hudson Bay. Over time, the community has evolved from shooting problem bears to relocating them as a solution to living with bears so vital to their economy. The Polar Bear Alert program was established in 1981 to protect both people and polar bears.  Polar bears that wander into town are reported to the authorities. Most bears are easily scared away with cracker shots, but the more persistent bears are trapped, held in the facility for up to 30 days, and then released far from town.  Since the start of the Polar Bear Alert program, over 2,000 bears have been saved by relocation.

We also had the pleasure of spending part of our afternoon with tribe elder Betty and her husband, Jim. Betty and Jim have spent their lives practicing sustainable trapping methods on the tundra. Betty began trapping at an early age and taught our group that responsible trapping helps nature keep balance. Betty and Jim have lived successfully off the land trapping animals such as martins, beavers, wolverines, foxes, and wolves for the fur trade. We are inspired by the way they live as one with nature and play a vital role in the stewardship of the land. Betty reminds us that “the land is a beautiful place that can be destroyed if you don’t know or don’t care.”

On our way out to the lodge, we observed coastal woodland caribou, Arctic hares, Arctic foxes, several bird species, and our first polar bear sighting! It has been a long and overwhelming day full of excitement and information. As we settle into the lodge, processing all that we have learned, we look forward to the adventures to come.

This blog post was written by keepers Hali O’Connor, San Diego Zoo, Amy Hash, Oregon Zoo, Anne Barilla, Roger Williams Zoo, and Tiffany Mayo, Cleveland Zoo. Read Hali’s previous post, Brown Bear Fun. You can also read blog posts from the other keepers attending Keeper Leadership Camp.

13 Responses to Polar Bear Camp for Keepers

  1. Oh WOW, you guys had a fun-filled day. Thank goodness they relocate the bears instead of shooting them. The pictures were great to see on preservation at work, this is very heartwarming to say the least. Keep up the great work, I know Chinook, Kalluk and Tatqiq would be “BEARY” proud!!! From Vegas!!!!

  2. How exciting…I wish I could be there right along with you. I look forward to updates.

  3. Is there another post about this Polar Bear Camp for Keepers that I can read? What is the main purpose of this camp? I’m also curious about the tourism… I would love to see beluga whales and polar bears. What time of year does this all take place?

    Also.. as keepers, one of your goals is conservation. Do you feel any conflicts meeting folks who engage in trapping? Are wolves and wolverines in the endangered list? Maybe I’m thinking of badgers. I’m just curious because one would think trapping negates conservation… but I do understand the whole balance theory…

    It all sounds like a wonderful experience for you all… Hopefully we’ll get more postings about your adventures.

    Moderator’s note: Here’s more info on PBI’s leadership camps…

  4. I also thought of another question. How do you get chosen for this camp? Do you all work in the polar bear exhibits? Sorry for all the questions… Thank you!

  5. I read your blog and would love to go to the tundra some day that is my dream. Of course my favorite animals are the polar bears,grizzly bears,black bears and all other types of bears. I have the polar cam on
    from san diego zoo every day to watch kalluck tatqig and our beautiful chinook who I pray that she will deliver a beautiful baby. I read your blogs as they come in and would like to donate my free time on the weekends to help out with our bears. Do the keepers at the zoo attend any schooling in order to become a keeper? Anyway this is the first time I have ever responded to the blogs that you post. I would like for all the zoo keepers all the best in life and to continue doing the great work of conservation of our bears. I know that Kalluck, Tatqig,and our beautiful lady Chinook appreciate’s all that all of you are doing.
    With all my love hope’s and dreams that someday our bears will be off the endangered list.
    Sincerly, Vicki Layman
    From Orange County California

  6. I hope you discussed with the Churchill trappers the pain and fear caused to animals by trapping. It is customary for trappers to say that they are at one with nature, so I hope you did not just assume that what they said is correct. If you did, indeed, question this idea of trapping being beneficial to the animals, and how long these animals must endure the pain of the trap, then good for you!

  7. Fur trade ???

    Disgraceful… with the wide variety of man made fabrics the use of any animal pelt for clothing is brutal and unnecessary… be it the pelt of a fox or the skin of a crocodile its all very well for trappers and the like to claim to be in tune with nature…as they slowly wipe it out of course.

    Any if anyone disagrees with me just imagine Chinook, Kalluk or Tatqiq’s fur being used as some trophy, rug or adornment for an idiot pop star to burn in her videos…..

  8. Vicki Layman says:
    I agree with JoGGer in what he says regarding taking fur from all animals. Man has ruined our planet and our animals especially our animals we need to have more people take interest in saving our polar bears
    and all bears and animals. Alright JoGGer.

  9. Thanks for the update, Keepers. We wish you a wonder-full adventure with the polars bears in Manitoba.

  10. I agree, it’s certainly not necessary to trap any animal in this day and age for anything. I do appreciate the beauty of these magnificent animals and the work being done by PBI. I hope to go to Churchill next year. Thanks for the report.

  11. #3 and #4 Dianna from Ohio
    I do not allow my personal feelings to get in the way of learning about the lives of others. Conservation is really the preservation, protection, or management of species or natural resources, and Jim and Betty showed us that they do that. Having lived in the Churchill area most of their lives, Jim and Betty explained to us the importance of only harvesting what the land can handle. Wolves and wolverines are not endangered in Manitoba. Most of the species are unregulated by the government, and a good trapper needs to be in touch with nature so as to be sustainable. If they depleted the environment, they too would not survive.

    As to how we have been chosen to go to Keeper Leadership camp, that depends on the zoo. The San Diego Zoo chose me on the recommendation of some key individuals involved in PBI. Although I am not currently a polar bear keeper, I am honored to have been recommended to come here and plan to make good use of my experience to help reduce CO2 in our world to help save polar bears. I do plan to write some more blog posts about this wonderful experience, so stay tuned!

    #5 vicki layman
    Thanks so much for your nice words. Keepers do have some requirements in order to be hired, but they depend on the institution, but usually a degree in an animal science field and/or experience working with animals. Competition for zoo keeper jobs can be high, so the more a person has, the better. If you would like to become a volunteer at the San Diego Zoo, you can apply online on our Web site under the “Get Involved” section. Hope to see you! Hali

  12. thanks Hali for this interesting article! I think some of the people on this blog need to go back and read the article a little more carefully. these people,Jim & Betty live off the land and waste not, want not! most of us on this blog do not live off the land and have no idea what we are talking about. we just go shopping. stop being so judgemental about other people’s way of life. we are not talking trophys here!!! we have to look no further than I own backyards to find what’s wrong with our own way of life and should stop passing our opinions around when they make no sense at all. they are not killing off the species. we are not talking about illegal trapping!!!

  13. Nancy those animals are trapped for the fur trade …it says so in the article which I DID read – now you tell me what the fur trade means to you and also tell me what animals furs can do that man made fabrics can not.. you also tell me how many animals arent killed instantly in the traps..