Polar bears have a tantalizing combination of ferocity, mysteriousness and charm that people find irresistible.

Polar bears have a tantalizing combination of ferocity, mysteriousness and charm that people find irresistible.

They are the world’s largest bears, apex predators that hunt and feed on ringed seals, which are about the size and weight of a bantamweight boxer. Without a rifle, a pugilist wouldn’t stand much of a chance against a polar bear either.

TV preview

Click to Expand

Arctic Vets
Fridays, 8:30 p.m.
CBC, CBC Gem

Kingdom of the Polar Bears
The Nature of Things
● Friday and March 5, 9 p.m.
● CBC, CBC Gem

Ursa maritimus — "sea bear" in Latin — has also been a cuddly icon for Coca-Cola since 1922 and they are often the star attraction at zoos around the world. At Winnipeg’s Assiniboine Park Zoo’s Journey to Churchill exhibit, its underwater viewing tunnels provide safe viewing of Storm and the his polar pals as they cavort in their pool. While the zoo is open, some indoor exhibits are temporarily closed due to the pandemic.

Polar bears are also symbols of the Arctic, and recently have become poster animals for climate change and its effects on the Arctic ecosystem. Two new CBC shows filmed in Manitoba that première Friday offer intimate glimpses and new insights into their lives, their health and a future that grows more precarious with each passing year.

The polar bear doubleheader begins Friday at 8:30 p.m. with Arctic Vets, a new 10-episode, half-hour series that focuses on the veterinarians, technicians and other staff at Winnipeg’s Assiniboine Park Conservancy. The not-for-profit organization oversees the Assiniboine Park Zoo’s animals, including the polar bears and other Arctic species that are part of Journey to Churchill.

 

 

Right after is Kingdom of the Polar Bears, a two-episode documentary that runs tonight and March 5 as part of The Nature of Things, which marks its 60th anniversary season.

The one-hour shows, co-produced by Winnipeg’s Merit Motion Pictures and France’s Films à Cinq, send a film crew to Churchill and meets polar bear tracker Dennis Compayre, who grew up in the northern Manitoba town and has observed the bears for more than four decades.

He was the original driver of the Tundra Buggy that began taking tourists to safely view the bears in their habitat in 1980.

 

 

While he no longer drives the buggies — he is a guide for TV and film crews these days — he has noticed the subtle way climate change has affected Churchill, Hudson Bay, the polar bears, and even the curious onlookers who want to see them.

"Unfortunately it’s the looming demise of the animals that’s the big attraction at this point," Compayre says. "The first 20 or so years, (tourists) had smiles on their faces and tears in their eyes looking at these beautiful animals.

"Now the people come to Churchill, the majority of them, you don’t see that big smile on their face, that joy. They get a big lump in their throat because they figure these bears are going to be gone."

Compayre leads a film crew that focuses their lenses on the bears in their natural habitat, the shores and ice floes of Hudson Bay. Between his knowledge and the frosty and the fascinating footage, Kingdom of the Polar Bears describes why their populations near Churchill are threatened.

"In the first week of November, the wind would start blowing from the north and it would lock in from that direction and it would stay until April and May," Compayre says. "We were accustomed to that, we relied on that for travel on the land and the bears relied on that to get out on the ice in a timely fashion and it never changed.

Polar bear tracker Dennis Compayre.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Polar bear tracker Dennis Compayre.

"But 10 years ago, that all fell apart. We would see the wind start blowing from the north in first week of November and it would pack in the ice at the shore. But overnight it would switch back to the south and it would blow the ice out into the bay. It threw a monkey wrench into everything and it still does."

Polar bears near Churchill need Hudson Bay to freeze over so they can climb on and scope out holes in the ice and wait for seals to emerge to breathe. Without the ice, the bears are stuck on shore with little to eat — a time period that grows longer, owing to climate change, the show reveals.

While the bears are the star of Kingdom of the Polar Bears, Compayre makes a good supporting actor. He recalls how a polar bear he named Dancer recognized him year after year, and he even wrote a book about their icy relationship, titled Waiting for Dancer.

The show also follows him to a mother polar bear’s den, where he braves the Churchill chill for a rare view of a wary mother bear and her cubs.

Compayre has had a few close calls with polar bears but he says the "super-smart" bears are usually just as cautious around him as he is around them.

At North Knife River Delta, 70 kilometres away from Churchill, Andrew Szklaruk (left) and Dr. Chris Enright release a polar bear back safely into the wild away from the town.</p>

ARCTIC VETS PRODUCTIONS INC.

At North Knife River Delta, 70 kilometres away from Churchill, Andrew Szklaruk (left) and Dr. Chris Enright release a polar bear back safely into the wild away from the town.

"The trick is to be super-prepared and have backup after backup, but there’s always something you don’t anticipate that sets you back," he says. "Ninety-nine per cent of the bears are good guys, then you get that one ass that always seems to be in the crowd. You always have to be on guard with these guys."

Coping with COVID

Even polar bears, or at least the filming of them, couldn’t escape COVID-19. The pandemic interrupted filming of both Arctic Vets and Kingdom of the Polar Bears during 2020.

Even polar bears, or at least the filming of them, couldn’t escape COVID-19. The pandemic interrupted filming of both Arctic Vets and Kingdom of the Polar Bears during 2020.

The first episode of Arctic Vets, for instance, has moments filmed prior to the global shutdown and from the summer of 2020 when film production was allowed to resume in Manitoba when positive case numbers were low.

The coronavirus has the zoo’s staff on high alert, not just for their own safety but the safety of the animals they care for. The virus has been detected in domestic cats as well as lions, tigers and other big cats, but COVID-19 hasn’t been detected in any of the zoo’s animals, Enright says.

“We don’t fully understand which animals might be susceptible to COVID-19,” he says. “We look at the literature, we make educated deductions and we err on the side of precaution.”

Churchill also makes an appearance in the opening episode of Arctic Vets. After Dr. Chris Enright and other Assiniboine Park Conservancy staff carefully trim a muskox’s hooves — definitely on the "don’t try this at home" list — he flies to the polar bear capital after Manitoba conservation officers trapped a polar bear that ventured too close to town.

The amount of people and equipment needed to relocate a polar bear to restart its hunt for seals is a shocker. Spoiler alert: moving an anesthetized polar bear requires a helicopter.

"Manitoba Sustainable Development and the conservation officers, the natural-resource technicians on the ground have a really mature program and they’re really good at what they do," Enright says.

"There’s a lot of moving pieces. There’s people, there’s the animal, there’s equipment, there’s helicopters, but they do it really well and that program is world-renowned for what they do, which is keeping people safe and keeping bears safe at the same time."

“It’s a very unique experience being on the landscape with a polar bear. Polar bears are big predators, they’re the top of the food chain and they know it. They’re smart, they’re curious and they’re interested in what’s going on." – Polar bear tracker Dennis Compayre

Arctic Vets follows a growing television trend toward shows about veterinarians and the animals they look after. Viewers can watch vets treat a Noah’s Ark of animals on TV these days from a host of exotic locations, from Bondi Junction in Australia to Haines Junction in the Yukon.

It isn’t even the first veterinary show set in Manitoba. Dr. Keri: Prairie Vet, an Animal Planet Canada show also produced by Merit Motion Pictures, has followed Dr. Keri Hudson-Reykdal and her clinic in Ashern for three seasons as she treats farm animals and pets throughout the Interlake.

The popularity of these shows is what started the Arctic Vets project about three years ago, Enright says.

"We were excited about the opportunity to lift the curtain a little bit and show what we do as a vet team for our animals here," Enright says. "Also the opportunity to work with some of our collaborators and tell some of those stories that aren’t always out there... We thought it was a really great fit."

Enright has focused his practice on wildlife for the past 14 years, after spending his early veterinary career treating dogs, cats, horses and cattle. He believes Arctic Vets will tap into people’s love of animals as well as treating wildlife in difficult conditions.

Polar bears Storm (left) and Siku wrestle at Assiniboine Park Zoo.</p>

ARCTIC VETS PRODUCTIONS INC.

Polar bears Storm (left) and Siku wrestle at Assiniboine Park Zoo.

"There was certainly interest in how we would work with Arctic animals and temperatures of -30 C when you have to do something with the animals," he says. "It has its unique challenges.. and it’s a story that we’re happy to engage people with."

They’ll also engage with the polar bears, whether the pool-divers in Winnipeg or the ice-floe floaters on Hudson Bay.

Compayre says polar bears’ intelligence is bottomless, saying that’s part of his fascination with them. Enright concurs.

"It’s a very unique experience being on the landscape with a polar bear," he says. "Polar bears are big predators, they’re the top of the food chain and they know it. They’re smart, they’re curious and they’re interested in what’s going on.

"You really appreciate they’re an impressive animal. They’re really top dog around here."

alan.small@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter:@AlanDSmall

Alan Small

Alan Small
Reporter

Alan Small has been a journalist at the Free Press for more than 22 years in a variety of roles, the latest being a reporter in the Arts and Life section.

   Read full biography