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Inside Canada’s Polar Bear Prison

In Churchill, Canada, there’s a jail for bad news bears. The crime? Getting too close to humans. The punishment? A time-out that lasts for up to a month with no snacks and then a one-way helicopter ride miles outside of town.

Churchill is a unique, remote place in the Canadian province of Manitoba, right in the center of a polar bear migration path. Every year from July to November, polar bears march through the area to wait out the summer months until the Hudson Bay freezes and they can hunt for seals on the sea ice. During that time, you can take safari-style tours in burly vehicles called “tundra buggies” that can traverse the frozen landscapes outside town. 

A few decades ago, residents would shoot polar bears that strayed into town—sometimes killing up to 30 bears a year, according to a recent article from The Guardian diving into Churchill’s polar bear tourism history. Today, if troubled bears are caught in town, they’re tranquilized and sent to a detention center more commonly known as the polar bear jail. They can be held for up to a month, then they’ll be tranquilized and taken far enough from civilization that they won’t be back any time soon. 

While they’re being held in solitary confinement (unless they’re a mama bear with cubs, which can be held together), they’re given plenty of water but no snacks or toys, according to Atlas Obscura. Though it may seem like a harsh punishment, polar bears are typically already fasting at that point, in anticipation of the all-you-can-eat seal buffet that arrives with winter.

“The jail environment teaches the animals that approaching humans results in a boring and annoying experience, not worth repeating,” Cadger Maclean, a conservation officer in the town, told Atlas Obscura last year. “That’s why bears don’t get to do much in their cells.”

Churchill has a polar bear alert system, with a polar bear hotline residents can call to notify authorities of naughty bears wreaking havoc around town. Staff will respond and try to scare the bears away before resorting to capturing and relocating them—sometimes responding to five or six calls a night during peak polar bear season in October and November. 

You can’t drive to Churchill, so getting there is part of the adventure. You can either fly, or take a 48-hour train ride from the town of Winnipeg. Once you get there? Stay vigilant: polar bears come near town so frequently, it’s not recommended to venture outside of town without a trained guide.

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