Monday, March 1, 2021

Ghosts In The Zoo


The other day I was walking through Stanley Park exploring the remnants of the depressing, old zoo that used to be there and came across the polar bear pit. Such a sad looking and miserable enclosure that once held up to five polar bears transplanted here from Hudson Bay. The zoo also had penguins, monkeys and seals amongst other animals but the polar bears were the main attraction until it closed in 1994. Tuk, the oldest polar bear, stayed on until 1997 when he finally died of pneumonia.

The exhibit opened in 1962 and, like the rest of the zoo, it was poorly designed and hardly provided any sort of natural environment for its inhabitants. Contrast this with the modern award winning facility at the Assiniboine Zoo in Winnipeg where the 10 acre Journey to Churchill exhibit hosts orphaned polar bears in a setting that includes muskox, wolves, and seals. The animals roam around in semi-authentic landscapes of forest, tundra and ice including a salt water pool for the polar bears and seals to swim in that also provides an underwater viewing tunnel for the tourists.

Next door to the old Vancouver Zoo is the Vancouver Aquarium which opened its doors in 1956 and in 1967 had a killer whale, named Skana, on display for 13 years. The pathetically small tanks to hold this and other killer whales, a false killer whale, and various beluga whales kept increasing in size and number but were never big enough and couldn't hope to replicate any sort of natural environment for the cetaceans. Mercifully in 2019 the federal government finally outlawed the keeping of whales in aquariums though by then all of Vancouver's whales had already died of various causes.

The whole issue of zoos and aquariums to keep animals in captivity for the viewing pleasure of humans is losing its appeal worldwide though there does seem to be support for facilities that are for rehabilitation or if an animal is too injured to be released into the wild. But there are no end of heartbreaking stories from zoos around the world where the animals are being mistreated or their lives are a misery. The most recent was Kaavan, dubbed the world's loneliest elephant, that was finally rescued from a zoo in Pakistan and moved to a sanctuary in Cambodia thanks to the assistance of Cher.

Meanwhile back in Canada we have the world's coldest elephant, Lucy, living in a zoo in Edmonton that refuses to move her to an elephant sanctuary in Tennessee, and the happy reunion of the four elephants from the Calgary zoo that were re-united at a zoo in Washington, D.C. when officials belatedly realized it wasn't nice to separate animals that have been together for years. 

Intelligent mammals like whales and elephants have complicated kinship arrangements not to mention close ties to their environment and one can only wonder how they feel about being suddenly uprooted from what they know and being taken away to some alien location. The same probably goes for other creatures so why this obsession with trying to tame the wild? We need to leave it alone and protect whatever is left of nature. If you want to see these magnificent creatures find some sustainable way to see them in their own environment, not some manufactured one.

While creatures like Tuk and Skana may have brought joy to thousands and, in the process, created the awareness that has led to various preservation efforts or their respective species, it came at the cost of their freedom. When most female killer whales live for 50+ years Skana died at the age of 18 without having any offspring. Tuk lived to 37 when most polar bears live for only 25 years but his life was sad, lonely, and pitiful. Now it's just his ghost that prowls around the deserted enclosure.