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ONLINE DOCUMENT: AS ATTITUDES TOWARDS ANIMALS CHANGE, VANCOUVER’S ZOO TO CLOSE

SHARE ONLINE DOCUMENT: AS ATTITUDES TOWARDS ANIMALS CHANGE, VANCOUVER’S ZOO TO CLOSE

The monkey cages are all gone, the penguins will soon be on their way to a zoo in Chicago and buffalo no longer roam under the cedar trees.

The Stanley Park Zoo, once the West Coast's premier menagerie, is soon to be relegated to the history books.All that remains is the incongruous sight of Tuck, a 34-year-old polar bear, pacing his concrete pit in the rain forest while his keepers wait for him to die.

"We figured it would be too traumatic to move the polar bear at his age," said Al Reagan, one of the zookeepers. "And really, nobody else would want him now."

A polar bear's normal life span in the wild is 34.

After existing for more than a century, most of that time as one of the city's most popular attractions, the Stanley Park Zoo has fallen victim to a changing mind-set in Vancouver. While most other cities in North America embrace their zoos - and in fact spend millions upgrading them - Vancouver has opted to do away with wild animals in cages.

"I think the days of zoos are over," said Allan DeGenova, who serves on the city's parks board. "Times have changed. People are saying we don't have to put animals in cages to learn about them. With technology, computers and 3-D Imax films you can learn about animals without having to cage them. I think people in Vancouver have seen this vision."

The question now, however, is whether Vancouver is leading the way in a trend against putting animals in cages or whether the parks board has simply amplified the voice of well organized animal-rights groups.

Such groups have successfully fought for more than a decade to close the zoo and are now making the whales at the nearby Vancouver Aquarium their focus.

"What's happening in Vancouver is completely counter to what's happening everywhere else in North America," said John Nightingale, director of the Vancouver Aquarium. "Everywhere else they've had a bad old zoo, like the Stanley Park Zoo, instead of junking it they've fixed it up. That what they've been doing in New York, with the Central Park Zoo."

The Stanley Park Zoo came into existence by accident. In 1889, park ranger Henry Avison collected deer, raccoons and bears, a home-grown menagerie that became popular with Vancouverites and tourists who traveled to the famous park. That led to a full-fledged zoo that grew to include wolves, reptiles, a handful of polar bears and the penguins.

For most of the next hundred years, the zoo was a requisite stop on a Sunday, so visitors could see penguins from Antarctica sharing their watery pen with the West Coast blue heron that frequently drops in for a visit.

But like many older zoos, it didn't age well. By the 1980s, the conditions - tiny cages and exhibits of animals that had no real relevancy to the local ecosystem - gave it a run-down look. Efforts to upgrade the exhibits, or narrow the zoo's focus to simply native animals, failed to persuade those who viewed the concept of wild animals in captivity as barbaric.

In 1993, Vancouverites voted in a referendum to begin closing the zoo, a process that will be all but complete when the penguins are flown to Chicago in the next few weeks.

In most other cities, older zoos have been closed primarily because of economics: There hasn't been enough money to replace the old-style cages with the sprawling exhibits of the modern zoo that usually have very few fences and give animals greater liberty.

Vancouver, however, has moved away from the fundamental concept of keeping any animal in captivity, a move that Nightingale and others thinks is an overreaction the city will regret.

While zoos around the world have been struggling with the touchy issue of improving the lot of the animals on exhibit, Nightingale and others maintain that technology - whether it be 3-D films, videos or computer graphics - is a poor substitute in teaching children about their natural environment.

He believes the parks board has given the animal-rights groups too large a say in such matters, allowing them to sway public opinion against the zoo.

"There are activist groups in other cities," said Nightingale, "but there are no other government bodies in those cities like the parks board that are swayed, as the parks board is, by such small groups. In Vancouver, the pendulum has shifted all the way over to ultra political correctness. The losers will be the children."

And, very possibly, the Vancouver Aquarium. It's major attraction is its whales - killer whales and Arctic belugas. It's probable that without those whales in captivity it would cease to be a viable enterprise.

The parks board has drafted a bylaw that would keep whales from being brought into the city's parks, something aimed directly at the aquarium, which is on Stanley Park ground.

Currently, the aquarium is attempting to join with the parks board in a plan to turn the former zoo into a salmon stream complete with spawning beds. The plan to reclaim an old creek would involve directing aquarium water into the stream. The approximately one million tourists who pass through Stanley Park every year would be able to get a first-hand look at salmon reproduction.

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.)