It’s been a bad couple of weeks for zoos.
It started well enough, with the big announcement that the B.C. Wildlife Park would be home to a new exhibit — an 18-month-old kermode bear given the cuddly name Clover.
Zoo manager Glenn Grant likened acquisition of the only known captive “spirit” bear to “winning the lottery.”
Then things started going downhill, zoo-wise. In some quarters, keeping a kermode in captivity isn’t something to be celebrated. The Lifeforce Society fired up a “free the spirit bear” campaign, unkindly labelling the wildlife park “a roadside zoo.”
Lifeforce founder Peter Hamilton said, “Think of the horrid life ahead for a lone bear pacing back and forth and back and forth. Imprisonment will kill this bear’s spirit.”
Down at the Greater Vancouver Zoo in Langley, a few days after the Kermode unveiling, a 12-year-old giraffe named Jafari dropped dead from unknown causes — the third giraffe it has lost in a year — setting off renewed demands from the Vancouver Humane Society that the keeping of African species be ended.
And now there’s CBC’s Fifth Estate documentary, Elephant in the Room, which asks if zoos will soon be a thing of the past.
The program looks at the plight of three Toronto Zoo elephants named Toka, Thika and Iringa, and an elephant named Lucy who lives alone at the Valley Zoo in Edmonton.
Not even the hardiest Canadian enjoys an Edmonton winter; imagine what it’s like for an animal built for a temperate climate.
Zoos all over the world — London, Edinburgh, Calgary, Chicago, New York — are ending their captive-elephant programs on humanitarian grounds.
All four elephants would be accepted by the PAWS sanctuary in California, which could provide them with a life as close to natural as is possible in captivity.
So why aren’t they enjoying sunshine and comparative freedom there right now? Because their respective owners, based in part on the opinions of a U.S. organization called the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, won’t let them. AZA opposes sanctuaries like PAWS, which fall outside the normal accreditation guidelines for zoos. So the elephants face another Canadian winter.
Climate isn’t an issue in Clover’s case, but the rest of the debate is similar — experts who disagree.
Grant and the wildlife park insist the bear could not be successfully released back into the wild.
Lifeforce begs to differ, offering to raise funds for a strategy to return Clover to the wild after winter
Former game-show host Bob Barker says in the Fifth Estate documentary: “There will be a time that people are going to say, ‘Do you know that back there for years and in 2012 even, they had zoos they called them and they took these beautiful animals and they stuffed them in cages?’ ” he says. “Can you picture that? In cages.”
The B.C. Wildlife Park does some great conservation work and has returned to its focus on species native to B.C., but it is a zoo. Though heavily subsidized by tax dollars, it has to make revenue by putting wild animals on display.
Maybe a comment from a B.C. alumnus, actor Michael J. Fox, best sums up the debate: “Zoos are becoming facsimiles — or perhaps caricatures — of how animals once were in their natural habitat. If the right policies toward nature were pursued, we would need no zoos at all.”