Zoo plans shortsighted

By Rob Laidlaw

Editor, the Gauntlet,

[Re: “Lions and belugas and polar bears (oh my!),” editorial, Aug. 3, 2006]

Thank you for including a piece that provides a realistic perspective on the Calgary Zoo’s proposed Arctic Shores project.

There is no doubt that the addition of beluga whales and polar bears will increase the Calgary Zoo’s attendance at least temporarily, but it will most certainly come at a cost. The once stellar reputation of the Calgary Zoo as a serious institution focused on conservation and education is already experiencing a process of rapid deterioration and that will continue as long as the zoo holds onto this ill conceived and anachronistic project.

But the bigger cost will be to the animals. Beluga whales and polar bears are among the worst candidates for captivity. Their natural environments cannot be replicated in captivity.

Belugas have been tracked swimming thousands of kilometers in just a few months time and have been documented diving to depths exceeding 1,900 meters. They are highly social, sometimes congregating in the thousands in the wild, and scientists believe they have their own distinct cultures.

Polar bears are the widest ranging terrestrial animals on earth. They traverse huge areas of territory ranging from 20,000 square km to more than 300,000 square km during their lifetimes and can walk or swim 50-100 km in a single day. They are uniquely adapted, both biologically and behaviourally, to very cold environments and can overheat in temperatures as low as zero degrees celsius.

The Calgary Zoo has said that acquisitions of belugas or polar bears will be “rescue” scenarios in which they receive individuals that are orphaned in the wild or that are currently residing in substandard conditions. But once these animals are sent to the Calgary Zoo, how many of them will be replaced with newly caught wild animals? And how many of those “rescues” will involve animals that could be returned to the wild if they were given a chance? And what happens when their whales or polar bears die, as they inevitably do? Will the zoo not want to refill their tanks and cages?

Instead of spending tens of millions of dollars building monuments to waste that incarcerate an insignificant number of distressed animals, it makes far more sense for the Calgary Zoo to improve conditions for the animals that are already there and to move proactively into the future by providing “real” support to field conservation initiatives.

Rob Laidlaw

Director, Zoocheck Canada Inc.

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