June 4, 2009
by: Todd Babiak, Edmonton Journal
The large snakes in the Saito Centre, at the Valley Zoo, lay curled and unmoving amid plastic plants and fake rocks made of spray-on concrete. Behind them, faded photographs of greenery.
Like much of the zoo, the snake exhibit fails to meet commonly accepted design principles, according to Rob Laidlaw, executive director and founder of ZooCheck Canada. The animals are below eye level. They lack places of safe retreat. Their living spaces are cramped and lack variety. Critical resources like real flora, indicative of the animal's natural habitat, are absent. Plants are either plastic or virtual.
And, most importantly, the animals are not the principal clients in the Saito Centre and elsewhere at the Valley Zoo. The institution was designed, in keeping with 1959 values, for visitors first and staff second. ZooCheck Canada is a charity devoted to animal protection. Laidlaw, who has been doing this work for more than 30 years, has visited and surveyed more than 1,000 zoos around the world. This week, he is in Edmonton to prepare a report on the Valley Zoo.
Laidlaw, a children's author in his spare time, was behind last month's letter, signed by prominent Canadian novelists such as Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, Jane Urquhart and Nino Ricci, urging Edmonton's mayor and city council to intervene on behalf of the Valley Zoo's star attraction, Lucy the elephant. The authors want the city to order an independent, expert assessment of Lucy's ability to travel, and to accept invitations from either the PAWS elephant sanctuary in California or the Tennessee Elephant Sanctuary. But his overall ambition is to change the guiding philosophy behind zoos.
"The Valley Zoo is an ad hoc collection of animals and exhibits that lacks any unifying focus or direction," Laidlaw said, near the entrance, as he passed from the storybook section to the petting area. "It's a mishmash of ideas, concepts and themes. It's thrown together."
Everyone who grew up between the 1950s and the 1980s will feel a happy-sad sting of nostalgia, walking into the zoo. Tuesday was hot and sunny, the trees of the river valley full and fragrant, one of those glorious school-is-out late afternoons on the prairies. Our instinct is to preserve the status quo, to keep things as they were when we were children: summery and simple.
No one can deny, however, that the Valley Zoo has become an abundantly sad place, despite the best efforts of its staff: it's underfunded and lacking in joy, imagination and empathy. Many of the newer exhibits are plunked in randomly among the old. Other exhibits are closed, or worn out. Animals from tropical rainforests lie on dry ground behind chain link fences, robbed of fresh vegetation.
Few of us truly believe in this place anymore, or see it as an attraction. That marvellous little train is closed forever. Now is the time, as the city charts 20 and 30 years into the future, to be honest about the Valley Zoo.
"It seems like the zoo wants to be like San Diego or Calgary or Toronto," said Laidlaw. "But it doesn't have the footprint, the financing, the commitment or the expertise. Like all zoos, this one is now devoted to education. But where is evidence of anything remotely educational? These animals are completely removed from any context, from anything resembling their natural habitats." There are excellent zoos, Laidlaw said, but none of them are based on the menagerie-style operation we see at the Valley Zoo, a trend that started in the late 19th century and peaked in the 1950s and early 1960s.
An institution like the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is part botanical garden (based on local vegetation and landscapes), part natural history museum, and part zoo -- with complex, naturalistic exhibits of animals native to the region and a truly educational mandate.
"You can take visitors on a journey," said Laidlaw, standing near the odd juxtaposition of the new lemur house, the old whale with an aquarium in its mouth, the giant pond with no animals and the tiny bowl of water with a black swan swimming in it. "But for that, you need some cohesion, a storyline, a narrative. There actually has to be something to learn."
There are marvellous ways the Valley Zoo could transform, Laidlaw said, which could allow it to fit the City Vision and fulfil its stated educational mandate -- even become a tourist attraction. It could update the storybook angle and change into a dynamic children's petting zoo, with northern Alberta species in its more open spaces, and a sincere relationship with the river and the gorgeous landscape.
"The large area in the back, with the ungulate exhibits, holds the most promise for the zoo," Laidlaw said. "You could have elk and bison back there, and a beautiful big wolf exhibit. An elevated quality of life for the animals and a great experience for visitors. An actual experience."
With the proper use of its space, the Valley Zoo could focus on being the best place in North America for unreleasable bears. It could be a conservation centre, focused on local animals, but much better environments for them. Or a rescue mission and sanctuary, for the millions of species being mistreated in the animal trade.
Laidlaw pointed out an owl, in the birds of prey exhibit, with a missing eye. "If you have an animal that is mutilated or injured, for example, why not tell us about it? How did it happen? What can we do about it? There's no education integrated into the visual experience, except the sign. There has to be some facilitation for people to get involved in things that are happening with animals in the outside world. You could invite some experts to a brainstorming session. You could change, and really do some good here."
As we toured the exhibits, and Laidlaw presented his initial impressions of the Valley Zoo, a jackrabbit bounded from one grassy section to another, eyeing us as we moved down the concrete path. We passed several exotic animals, lying docile, but we couldn't keep our eyes off that jackrabbit.
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