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.