Arctic Vets

Arctic animals get top-notch care at this world-renowned animal hospital

What happens when Arctic animals need to see a vet? Often, they’re transported to this Winnipeg animal hospital.

Meet the passionate people who care for these creatures in new series, Arctic Vets. Fridays 8:30 p.m.

(Arctic Vets Productions Inc. / CBC)

Watch Arctic Vets on CBC Gem

The animal care team at the Assiniboine Park Conservancy in Winnipeg are world-class experts on Arctic animals. They specialize in caring for Canadian Arctic species and researching, protecting and sometimes rescuing these animals from life-threatening situations in the wild. They are also the focus of the new CBC Television series Arctic Vets.

"I find them really engaging," says Dr. Chris Enright, director of animal welfare and veterinary services, of Arctic animals. "They're so emblematic of the Canadian landscape. But people in the south don't always have the opportunity to really appreciate how powerful a musk ox is, how incredible a predator a polar bear is or how amazing it is to see beluga whales swimming in the ocean."

These polar bears blow off steam by sliding around in the snow

Arctic Vets

3 months ago
When they're not busy looking intimidating and scary, the polar bears at Assinboine Park Conservancy blow off steam by just sliding around in the snow. 0:48

Enright fell in love with Arctic animals years ago. He saw a polar bear swimming in Hudson Bay and was blown away by its size and grace. "It was a really impressive animal." 

He also cared for a beluga whale from a boat out in the field. "It was absolutely astounding to see hundreds of whales in the same area around the boat. It's a thousand-kilo animal and you're surrounded by hundreds of them."

Treating Arctic creatures comes with challenges: while these animals are used to cold weather, their human caregivers prefer to be toasty warm. Enright says, "It's challenging when you're trying to provide medical care or a program in minus 40, but it's incredibly rewarding. We make a point of being well-dressed for all situations. That's why I've usually got 16 layers on," he jokes.

On the flip side, in the operating room, teams must work fast or an animal can be negatively affected by being at room temperature too long. 

The Assiniboine Park Conservancy is a non-profit that cares for Assiniboine Park and operates a modern zoo with a mandate to conduct research and conservation efforts in the park and beyond. 

Stephen Petersen, director of conservation and research for the Assiniboine Park Conservancy, is hands-on when it comes to animal research. He observes and tags ringed seals, who are native to the Arctic and a staple of polar bears' diets, and harbour seals, a species that is spending time further north. The tags are usually affixed to the seals' flipper and are used to track the animals' movement and lifespan. This allows researchers to see how environmental factors are impacting the animals.  "We're trying to understand that dynamic," says Petersen. 

For these rescued harbour seals, playtime has a serious purpose

Arctic Vets

3 months ago
Meet Neptune the one-eyed seal and his friends — rescued harbour seals (with big personalities) who now call the Assiniboine Park Conservancy home. 0:59

Other tools, including cameras, may be used to study wild populations. To understand how the 50,000-strong beluga whale population near Churchill, Man., cope with warming water, more ship traffic and rising numbers of orca whales coming in, Petersen and his team use underwater video to examine their behaviour.

On the animal care front, when a creature in their care dies, the team takes it hard. "There's a real attachment and the attachment goes both ways," Dr. Chris Enright says. 

There's a real attachment and the attachment goes both ways.- Dr. Chris Enright

When a young polar bear, a rescue, died a few years ago, staff were devastated. Staff were able to scatter his ashes on the tundra. Says Enright, "It was a real fitting resting place for him and a cathartic moment for staff who had cared for him and were able to say a final goodbye."

Understandably, it's hard for staff to keep a clinical detachment from the creatures in their care. The teams who work with Arctic animals become emotionally connected to them. "We care deeply for the animals that we work with day in, day out," says Enright. "We drive ourselves to be excellent for these animals."