Arctic Vets

What I learned taking care of polar bears and seals for 6 years

Caring for animals made Jackie Enberg a better mom, among other things.

Caring for animals made Jackie Enberg a better mom, among other things.

Watch Arctic Vets on CBC Gem

Jackie says goodbye to the Arctic animals she's worked with for 6 years

Arctic Vets

13 days ago
Today is animal care professional Jackie’s last day working with the polar bears and seals at Assiniboine Park Conservancy. 3:02

Jackie's last day with the bears

Jackie Enberg and Heather Penner are animal care professionals at Winnipeg's Assiniboine Park Conservancy (APC). They're having their regular morning coffee in the tunnel, watching the polar bears swim above them. In many ways, it's a typical day, but it's not — it's Jackie's last day working with the polar bears.

"I got a really great opportunity to move into a supervisor position [elsewhere in APC]. I'm leaving the bear and seal team," Enberg says. So while she'll be leaving Team Tundra, as it's called, she'll be sticking around the Conservancy and may even pop back in to help now and then.

Animal care professional Jackie Enberg closes a gate to the polar bear enclosure. (Arctic Vets Productions Inc. / CBC)

Enberg's career path hasn't exactly been linear, or traditional. She has a fine arts degree and worked a summer job at a Winnipeg wildlife sanctuary while she was going to school. After taking a couple years off university to explore Canada in her Volvo, she realized she really needed to work with animals.

In spring 2002, Enberg applied to a job posting at APC, starting part-time as a junior zoo attendant, a role that involved bottle-feeding baby animals and helping zookeepers. That summer job ignited her passion for working with animals and she's since worked at the Conservancy for over 18 years.

Once Enberg had her foot in the door, she took any hours she could to work up to the position of part-time zookeeper; whether that meant filling in for custodians, painting, patrolling the night watch, digging holes or moving rocks, Enberg did it all. In her third summer at APC, she started working part-time in animal care, where she fell in love with the gibbons (a type of ape).

Working with animals made Enberg a better mom 

Enberg enthusiastically talks up the benefits of working with animals. "You get really strong observational skills...Because animals like to hide when they're hurt, so you have to know those animals so well to be the voice for them."

She says the job also teaches invaluable soft skills that she's carried into other parts of her life. "It teaches you patience, humility,'s set me up to be a stronger caregiver to my family, so it definitely set me up to be a mother."

Jackie and Heather walk alongside an attentive polar bear in its enclosure. (Arctic Vets Productions Inc. / CBC)

No longer doing day-to-day care for the polar bears will be difficult for Enberg, "It's really hard to not be a part of this anymore. I'll miss them all. Bears are one of those species that, when you get a chance to get that close to them, people fall in love with them...they just really tug on your heartstrings, and they definitely did with mine," she says

Where is she now?

As the final episode of Arctic Vets was shot last year, Jackie has been in the supervisor role since September 2020. Looking back on it, she says, "[leaving the bear and seal team] was a really hard decision for me to make at the time," but that "Once I was in the supervisor position, I really loved it."

Enberg loves that the animal care supervisor role uses a greater variety of skills than she was used to, as it's easy to get hyper-focused when you're a specialized keeper in a certain section. 

And a bonus? She got another chance to care for the gibbons. "To get to be involved with gibbons again, which were the animals that stole my heart before bears, was pretty cool."

How to become an animal care professional

Animal care specialist Heather Penner uses a visual 'open mouth' command cue to get Aurora the polar bear to open wide. (Arctic Vets Productions Inc. / CBC)

Assiniboine Park Conservancy employs 38 full-time animal care professionals. What would it take to be considered for one of these positions?

Education: You need a bachelor's degree in zoological science, wildlife management or experience in a related field, though an equivalent of schooling and experience may be considered. 

Skills: You need to be able to perform physically strenuous work, both indoors and outdoors and in all types of weather. You also need to be able to build and maintain effective working relationships with your coworkers, visitors and volunteers. Comfort with public speaking is a must.

Also in episode 10 of Arctic Vets, the Conservancy's youngest polar bear gets neutered so he can safely join his fellow bears.

Watch Arctic Vets, Fridays at 8:30 (9 NT) on CBC, or stream it on CBC Gem.