Tristin Hopper had a story in the National Post recently about the “Yukon putting birds in the drunk tank.” The Bohemian waxwing is a songbird prevalent in northern B.C. and the Yukon. It normally feeds on berries. When frosts come, the berries freeze and ferment. Even with unusually large livers and speedy digestive systems, when the birds gorge on the fermented berries, they are prone to alcohol poisoning. They die of ruptured livers, fall off their perches and freeze to death, or weave as they fly and often hit windows.
The Yukon’s Animal Health Unit has undertaken a rehab program for the drunken birds. Birds found injured or near death are sent to Whitehorse where they are housed in specially equipped “holding tanks: small cages equipped with water and bedding.” There, they are kept “quiet and dark so that [they] can have a good recovery.” Leona Green, who maintains a wildlife refuge near Dawson Creek in northern B. C., also takes in drunken waxwings. Her practice is to shelter them until the berries disappear and then “release them and hope that they don’t do it again.”
This story reminded me of the polar bear jail in Churchill, Manitoba. Churchill is world-renowned for the hundreds of polar bears which gather near the town each autumn, waiting for the ice to freeze on James Bay. Normally, polar bears stay on the tundra, often curled up asleep on the patches of ice which freeze early. Some pace the beaches eating kelp, for lack of the seals they crave. Occasionally, they wander into town. Once they are spotted inside the safety perimeter which local authorities have established around the town, they are captured, tagged and airlifted back to the tundra. A bear with a tag who comes into town a second time is caught and jailed.
Churchill’s Polar Bear Holding Facility, the world’s only polar bear jail, is a major tool in local bear management during bear alert season. Built inside a former aircraft storage hangar in a compound outside of town, there are 25 cages, five air-conditioned cells for summer use, and a heated holding cell for orphaned cubs. Some bears are only held pending their trip back to the tundra. Recidivist bears stay much longer. Housed in separate cages, they are held without food. Local authorities realized, by trial and error, that supplying food gave them the wrong message. So the jail simulates a den and, when it is kept relatively dark, the bears sleep. When ice comes into the bay, about a kilometer away, the authorities open the door, and release the bears. They hightail it to the ice and are gone. The jail is empty for another season.
The number of jailed bears has declined since 2005 when a new garbage facility opened and the town dump closed. Now, their numbers are dependent on warming temperatures and changing ice conditions.
For birdwatchers, the waxwings may be a major attraction. For the rest of us, seeing polar bears in their natural habitat is a fabulous experience. In 2009, my sister and I spent a week visiting Churchill, including four full days on a polar bear safari by tundra buggy. Some of the pictures I took then are in the slide show. Enjoy.
Churchill is very well organized for visitors who come to see polar bears up close during the short autumn and winter season. Several companies offer many different tours, most of which fly out of Winnipeg. I would highly recommend a photo tour set up for fewer people, more days on safari, and with a professional photographer on board. Next time, I will try to visit when they open the doors of the polar bear jail. That would be a sight to behold.