Lions and belugas and polar bears (oh my!)

Over the course of its 75-year history, the Calgary Zoo has become a respected, world-class facility, deemed as such due to its commitment to conservation and public education. Recently, it was even voted Attractions Canada’s top outdoor site in the country. Calgarians should be proud, boasting their hometown is host to such a revered facility. However, the proposed Arctic Shores exhibit–which plans to bring polar bears and beluga whales to Calgary–threatens to tarnish the zoo’s reputation.

For Calgarians who can remember the zoo’s last attempt at polar bear husbandry, the new proposal is downright ludicrous.

In 1973, the Calgary Zoo opened their first polar bear enclosure to house Snowball and Misty. Both were eventually prescribed Prozac after their incessant pacing indicated severe psychological problems caused by confinement. Snowball was euthanised in 1996, with Misty following her to the great glacier in the sky in 1999. After their deaths, the zoo decided to take a break from polar bear care.

Now zoo officials figure that by increasing the size of the polar bear enclosure, they won’t have to pump them full of happy pills.

Arctic Shores is slated to cover one square kilometer–approximately the size of the playing field at McMahon Stadium. While this may seem like a vast area, it will be home not just to polar bears, but to seals and arctic foxes as well, and will include a saltwater aquarium for large marine animals. Whatever the zoo proposes to replicate the animals’ natural environment, it will be severely limited given such size constraints.

Polar bears wander thousands of kilometers in the wild. Unless the zoo plans to turn the greater Calgary area into a polar bear habitat, the bears will likely suffer the same psychological damage as last time.

The notion that beluga whales will thrive at the zoo is similarly preposterous. Marine mammals have had a rocky past in land-locked Alberta. Controversy surrounded the dolphin exhibit in West Edmonton Mall until Howard, the sole surviving dolphin, was transported to a saltwater lagoon in Florida in 2004. While some would suggest that the Calgary Zoo would be better equipped to handle marine life than a suburban mega-mall, no matter how well-designed the facilities may be, they will not provide the animals with an environment capable of satisfying their biological and behavioural needs.

Furthermore, the Calgary Zoo lacks experience in caring for large marine mammals. Last year the Vancouver Aquarium lost a three-year-old beluga whale unexpectedly, despite boasting a crack team of zoologists and veterinarians well-versed in marine science. If the Vancouver Aquarium has difficulties with these animals despite decades of experience, Calgary’s chance for success is slim.

Consider too that tax dollars will fund $65 million of this ill-conceived project. Apparently risk assesment is unnecessary when public funds are involved.

Acquiring such problematic, wide-ranging species will do little to educate the public or help to conserve the natural environment of these animals. It’s an irresponsible–and expensive–move that stands to potentially destroy the Calgary Zoo’s reputation within the community and across the country.

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