The Stanley Park Zoo, A Vancouver Institution Until 1996


Many people will remember the 1996 closure of the Stanley Park Zoo, or recall visiting the various animal enclosures with their families – it’s only been gone for 18 years. However, that’s just enough time for a new generation to grow up without any memory of the space, and without any recognition of its last remaining relic: that long-forgotten polar bear exhibit.

The story of the zoo dates back to 1888, the year Stanley Park officially opened. Henry Avison, the city’s first Park Superintendent, captured a baby black bear on the grounds and chained it to a stump, thus beginning a 108-year tradition of the park’s display of wild animals. Years later, in 1905, the Province newspaper reported that several varieties of animals had been donated to Avison’s project by various city residents, including four parakeets, a canary, and a seal from then-Mayor Frederick Buscombe. One wonders how he came into possession of such an animal, but I digress…

In 1911, several of the zoo’s animals, including a large buck, were found killed on the property. A wild cougar living in the park was the suspected culprit. The animal was eventually caught (with the promise of a $50 reward) and promptly stuffed. As exhibits became more sophisticated – in order to keep the zoo animals in and others out – the site became a huge attraction for locals, drawing curious visitors eager to get a glimpse of “the wild”. By the 1950s, it had cemented itself as a Vancouver institution. In 1953, it was the subject of an excellent On The Spot documentary episode highlighting the various exhibits. Host Fred Davis, in an interview with curator Alan Best (formerly of the London Zoo), learns there are “certain problems” inherent with bringing sub-arctic animals such as penguins to the temperate climate of Vancouver. At that time, the zoo was unable to provide the penguins their natural food source (fish, go figure), so they were fed watered-down dog food instead.

In June of 1956, with financing from all three levels of government, the Vancouver Aquarium opened its doors, and on August 1st that same year a penguin was born at the centre – the very first in Canada. The large concrete polar bear grotto was built in 1962 and quickly became the main attraction for park-goers. The four bears – Nootka, Jubilee II, Prince Rupert, and Princess Rupert – were born on Southampton Island in Hudson’s Bay, and were donated to the zoo by the Hudson’s Bay Company. 1962 also saw the arrival of Tuk, the bear who is fondly remembered for once “rescuing” a kitten that had been thrown into the exhibit.

Despite being a popular attraction for tourists and locals, the zoo angered a growing activist movement opposed to animals being kept in such small, unnatural habitats. Subsequently, Vancouverites voted via referendum in 1994 to phase out the remaining attractions in Stanley Park. The animals were either donated to the Stanley Park Children’s Farmyard (opened in 1982), transferred to the dubious Greater Vancouver Zoo in Aldergrove, or re-homed to hobby farmers and various organizations. One exception was made: Tuk was kept at the park due to concerns about his health, that is until he passed away the following year at the age of 36. The Children’s Farmyard was eventually closed in 2011.

The issue of animals in captivity, and breeding in particular, remains controversial. While many Vancouverites have fond memories of the zoo’s exhibits, especially visits to see the polar bears, today the abandoned site provides a thought-provoking glimpse into how we used to approach the idea of animals as objects of exhibition. Despite its condition, the polar bear pit hasn’t gone to waste: it not only serves as a salmon hatchery as part of the BC Hydro Salmon Stream Project, but also a great place to relive some vivid childhood memories.

  • View of the grotto
    View of the grotto
  • The Zoo, 1898 CVA P288
    The Zoo, 1898 CVA P288
  • The Pool
    The Pool
  • The polar bear habitat
    The polar bear habitat
  • Steps
  • Seal and Trainer, 196- VPL  41131
    Seal and Trainer, 196- VPL 41131
  • Salmon Hatchery
    Salmon Hatchery
  • Polar Bears, 1963 CVA 2010-006 107
    Polar Bears, 1963 CVA 2010-006 107
  • Polar bear enclosure, 196- VPL 41125
    Polar bear enclosure, 196- VPL 41125
  • Penguins, 1965 VPL 42914
    Penguins, 1965 VPL 42914
  • Penguins, 196-, VPL 41130
    Penguins, 196-, VPL 41130
  • No Visitors
    No Visitors
  • Making a splash, 1966 CVA 2010-006 001
    Making a splash, 1966 CVA 2010-006 001
  • Just lounging, 1970 CVA 2010-006 191
    Just lounging, 1970 CVA 2010-006 191
  • HBC plaque
    HBC plaque
  • Habitat gate
    Habitat gate
  • Grizzly Bear at the Zoo, 1945 CVA 586-1337
    Grizzly Bear at the Zoo, 1945 CVA 586-1337
  • Do Not Feed The Bears
    Do Not Feed The Bears
  • Decaying habitat
    Decaying habitat
  • Bison in the zoo enclosure, 1930 CVA CVA 260-282
    Bison in the zoo enclosure, 1930 CVA CVA 260-282
  • Bear bridge
    Bear bridge
  • Bear at the zoo, VPL 8124
    Bear at the zoo, VPL 8124
  • Ariel view of the zoo and Brockton Oval, 1957 VPL  47630
    Ariel view of the zoo and Brockton Oval, 1957 VPL 47630
  • Animal entrance
    Animal entrance

There are 10 comments

  1. Amazing pictures and video!
    Does anyone know where the old zoo was located? Any structures remaining?

  2. The old zoo was located in front of the aquarium.

    There is an error in this article. The dog food and milk was for the anteaters.

  3. I still have a few pics from 1981 we took of the Polar Bears inside the enclosure

  4. As a small child i loved going to the Stanley Park Zoo with my Mother, Father & sister. I especially liked watching the penguins waddle down their ramp. Yes, it was stinky but oh so worth it for a 6 year old!

  5. I remember thinking all the animals had some kind of skin disease, red and hairless patches especially on the polar bears and monkeys.
    As a child I loved going there,but it was also my awakening that something was very wrong

  6. Formatting is off. The paragraph that starts with in June 1956… the sentences are cut off

  7. Can anyone remember the Gibbon’s name? He was at or near the Children’s Zoo and he used to escape periodically and climb up a very high tree. This was in 1966.

  8. Man I miss going to the zoo as a little kid. I especially loved the penguin enclosure, although the reek of fish from 300ft away was a bit off-putting to me. The penguins in the picures here look like King penguins, but that is a very old picture. I am not 100% it was the same breed when I was going to the zoo in the early 1980s. Does anyone remember for certain what breed of penguin the zoo had in those years?

  9. As a young child I loved going to the zoo! It was so exciting to see animals I would have otherwise only seen in pictures. Looking back, I agree with the decision to discontinue capturing animals for display purposes. It was a different time.

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