An Afternoon at the Discovery Wildlife Park, Innisfail.

by Ann

From across the field, it looked like a great big teddy bear – fuzzy, unmoving – and lounging in a huge wooden lawn chair.

Is this a real bear or a big fuzzy teddy?

We weren’t sure if this was a real bear … or not!

But all of a sudden it started to move and, oh yes, it was definitely alive … you could tell from its movements as it clambered down from the chair and lumbered off towards a shed on the edge of the enclosure.  It was following a young woman walking away.  She had her back to it, and I thought to myself that she was being rather brave.

But I didn’t know then what was in store for me …

That moment set the scene for almost everything I saw at the Discovery Wildlife Park (Innisfail, Alberta), which is owned by Doug Bos and Debbie Rowland.  Serena Bos is the head Zookeeper, and she is personally involved with each and every animal in the Park from the moment of its arrival.  She was also the person who did the Jaguar Show while we were there.

The best place to be on a hot day

Charlie bear decides to go for a dip.

Just about all the animals have personal relationships with their trainers and keepers, because almost all of them arrived as orphans needing sanctuary.  So they respond to the humans who have cared for them since birth.

The Park is also home to Ruth LaBarge, the Hollywood animal trainer, and her bears.  These beautiful creatures have been with her since their eyes opened, so they are often more comfortable with humans than with other animals.  When she is not taking her animals to their latest film assignment, Ruth presents the Bear Awareness show.

The Park spreads out over 90 acres, and I must say I was pleasantly surprised and impressed. It is laid out and landscaped beautifully, and all of the enclosures contain shade and water – essentials on a hot day.  We saw a couple of bears cooling off in the water – one was splashing himself – a funny sight to see, because he reminded me of a human doing the same thing. And another was almost totally submerged in his private pond … I quite envied him that day.

This place is part zoo, part sanctuary, part education centre, and home to some well-known wildlife film-stars. The centre focuses on educating visitors on each of the species, especially bear safety here so close to the Alberta Rocky Mountains and Foothills.

Moose-Moose the Bison

The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence for Moose-Moose the bison.

They also teach about the necessity for us all to participate in conservation and the preservation of natural habitats – and they have an active breeding program for many of the animals.

The bison was so funny to watch as he was shoving his head under the fence, where the grass was obviously greener …  He looked like he was using his horns to lift the bottom of the fence to get at the sweet green grass – and I saw a definite little shake of his head to untangle his horns from the wire as he brought his head back in to his own side of the fence.

If you can’t get here, you’ll love to visit their Facebook Page and, if you look through the photo albums, you will see the actual birth of an elk and a picture of the baby when it was 10 minutes old, as well as another when it was trying to stand up for the first time.

You’ll also see lots of shots of their latest baby – a grizzly bear called Tuff – who lives as if he were part of the family, and gets into as much trouble as any self-respecting toddler anywhere.

We learned that training is very important for animals in captivity, as it provides mental and physical stimulus, and keeps them happy and busy.

Mag the Jaguar doing his artwork

Mag the jaguar painting his masterpiece

We saw a jaguar presentation, where these magnificent cats had been trained to do quite impressive tricks, including leaping at command onto specific props such as tables and logs, and jumping from one to the other. They also pushed around a ball that we were told weighed several pounds, and ‘painted’ a picture by placing a paw in a dish of paint and then onto a piece of paper.

Mia and Magnum are brothers – even though one is black and the other is brown and mottled with the typical markings we expect of a jaguar; they are ten years old, and have lived at the zoo since they were born … you’ll see them as babies on Facebook, too.

The trainer did not go into the cage with Mia and Magnum, but used voice and hand signals, and pushed the meat chunk rewards through the fence for them.
She was carrying on a constant commentary to the audience, and it was interesting to me how the animals distinguished between her commands and her conversation with the audience, even as she was using hand signals.

Mia the jaguar jumping

Mia the jaguar jumps from table to table for her reward of meat.

Mag's paw print

Mag’s paw print masterpiece

As I was heading towards the exit through the last building, I poked my head into into a room and saw a handler holding what looked like a python – and right next to her, was a young man with the bearded lizard.

I didn’t touch the lizard, but I did handle the snake, and I was surprised at how cold the skin felt, even on the hottest summer day.

Zookeeper Kaitlyn was very patient while I took a photo, as she explained the feeding habits of this reptile … live mice.

That was enough for me – and I bolted!

Fortunately at that point my daughter came back and excitedly told me that there was a bear cub at the door of the gift shop.  It was Tuff, though I didn’t know it at that time as I ran to follow her, only to see it rushing off in the distance, racing with Serena towards another building.

Baby Tuff was found orphaned in the wild, and brought to the park to rear.  They are definitely training him to interact with humans. He features prominently on the Park’s Facebook Page in various poses and situations with both handlers and visitors.  Since we were there last week, he has been ill.  You can follow his progress in detail on Facebook.   I am happy to report that he is now feeling much better.

Python and Kaitlyn

Kaitlyn showed us the python – and his skin felt cold

When you are travelling on Highway 2 in Central Alberta, make time to stop at Innisfail, and follow the signs to the Discovery Wildlife Park.  They are open 7 days a week from May 1st to Thanksgiving Weekend – the Canadian one.

Bearded Dragon and Thane

Thane was making friends with the Bearded Dragon

We spent more than 2 delightful hours there, and still didn’t see everything – so plan to spend longer, or even go back more than once if you can.

As well as all the programs and opportunities to have your photo taken with some of the animals, the Park provides “behind the scenes” experiences, campouts, school and organizational visits, and many other events by special booking.

It was my first time here, and I was pleasantly surprised at the spaciousness, care and cleanliness of the park.  It was a hot day, and the grass was green and lush, making the walk around the animals’ enclosures feel quite relaxing and enjoyable.

Visit the website to find out all the details you need to know about opening times, services, prices, educational programs, and everything else.

And by the way,  for those who cannot walk far, wheelchairs, wagons and golf carts are available for your use.

I heartily recommend a visit to the Discovery Wildlife Park, and I will be returning there myself just as soon as I can!

Update:  I am sad to report that Tuff, the bear cub, lost his health fight and died recently.  Everyone at the Wildlife Park is unhappy at the loss – he had become a part of the families – literally.  Go back to the Facebook Page and you will see some videos of him living right in the house

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