Babies aren’t the only things that take nine months to develop, it turns out. Earlier this week – almost exactly nine months after my first visit to the polar bear habitat (and my first time putting in a volunteer application) – I finally got in as an actual volunteer.
(In the interest of full disclosure, I did go once last month to help decorate one of the buildings for their Christmas celebrations, but I don’t think putting tinsel on a tree counts as doing anything for the bears.)
Over the past several months, I have actually become friends with one of the keepers on a non-polar bear basis, and he invited me to go into the bear holding building (not open to ‘regular’ visitors) and help prepare enrichments for the bears for the next day.
“What’s an enrichment?” you ask.
Reader, you are so good at prompting me to write in exactly the direction I’d like.
Of course, the polar bears have pretty strict diets based on science and research and all things good. They get all kinds of nutritious stuff to eat like fish and seal and moose and beaver and watermelons and pumpkins and whatever is best for them based on the time of year.
But, like all captive animals, they get bored and stressed.
So, every morning, before they let the bears out of their overnight holding cells, the keepers go into the enclosures and put out a bunch of enrichments – containers holding special treats – for the bears to find.
My keeper-friend led me into the kitchen area, where there are separate drawers for bear utensils and people utensils, and showed me the cupboard full of snacks for the bears. And although the fridge looked like a regular person work fridge – it was stocked with things like mustard and barbecue sauce – it turns out almost everything in there, save for a jar of homemade soup, was also for the bears. My task was to concoct some sort of 1,000 calorie mish-mash of treats and stuff it inside cardboard containers – tubes, boxes, whatever – to be split between the two bears and put out the following day.
And while I pride myself on making delicious meals and treats for human consumption, I cannot say that I would have liked to try what I made for my deal polar bear friends: broken up mouldy bread mixed with Sugar Crisp cereal and ketchup chips, all smothered in good old Aunt Jemima.