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Is the elephant irrelevant in the zoo of the future? (July 23, 2009)

posted 26 Aug 2010, 10:36 by Bhavithra Aloysious

July 23, 2009

by: Todd Babiak, Edmonton Journal

The elephant in the room was actually an elephant

Becca Hanson, a Seattle-based design consultant, was in Edmonton earlier this week to talk about the upcoming polar exhibit at the Valley Zoo. She was energetic and very well-spoken, and even though she has either studied or worked with many of the top zoos on this continent, Hanson sees a brilliant future on the banks of the North Saskatchewan.

"With this land and these people, you can have the best community zoo in North America," she said, "if not the world."

Hanson helped Valley Zoo administrators with the master plan, approved by city council in 2005 and only now moving out of conceptual phases and into reality. Much of the plan is in line with what the most forward-thinking zoos in the world are doing. It's focused on native landscapes and animals, educational experiences, rescue and conservation. The plan joins the zoo with the river valley, finally, and makes use of a breathtaking landscape. The theme of the north--northern animals and northern landscapes--is central.

Yet the plan also reaches into the irresponsible past -- calling for tropical animals to make up approximately 25 per cent of the zoo's collection. It calls for four elephants, for example, to be part of the Valley Zoo's "wow factor." When I used the word "elephant," the zoo's otherwise genial top administrators, director Denise Prefontaine and operations manager Dean Treichel, visibly stiffened.

The point of this meeting, clearly, was to steer attention away from Lucy the elephant and toward other concerns--a different future.

It has been a difficult year for Prefontaine and Treichel. A long list of Canada's most acclaimed authors, including Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje, local veterinarians, newspaper columnists and animal-rights activists have called for a panel of arm's-length elephant veterinarians to examine Lucy and determine whether she can be moved from the Valley Zoo to one of two elephant sanctuaries in Tennessee and California.

Bob Barker, former host of The Price is Right, has made national headlines for criticizing the city's treatment of Lucy; he is coming to Edmonton in September to address city council or, if that request is not granted, to meet with supporters.

On Wednesday, Zoocheck Canada held a rally in front of City Hall, challenging council to hold a public hearing.

Losing Lucy, the zoo's star attraction, to a sanctuary would be a devastating blow to realizing the tropical portion of the master plan. Yet it would also free the zoo to grow and transform sustainably, which seems to be everyone's goal.

Hanson sat in the Valley Zoo boardroom with Prefontaine, Treichel and two members of City of Edmonton's communications team.

"Listen, if Lucy stays here, and lives that long, and there are other elephants, they must have a good place to live," said Hanson.

"It's hugely complex," said Prefontaine. "But it's not a discussion I'm comfortable having without the right expertise in the room."

"Zoos have tended to hide," said Hanson. "They have to be more transparent. They have to have that conversation. But you do wind up feeling very vulnerable. It takes a while, and it's painful to have these conversations, but you have to go for it. And eventually you find everyone, everyone is on the same side of the table."

"We're more than happy to have that conversation," said Prefontaine. "But it's not appropriate right now."

"I'm nothing but optimistic," said Hanson. "That so many people are engaged and are talking: it's hugely positive."

City council has not become involved in the debate, but they can't ignore it much longer. The conversation is already happening and the zoo's current strategy--to dismiss critics as a bunch of kooks--stopped working some time ago.

There was a clear separation in the room, between enthusiasm for an institution that would be something more profound, more humane, more local and more beautiful than a traditional zoo and protecting, even enlarging a status quo that only promises more criticism, more hurt feelings, more awkwardness, more animals that do not belong 53 degrees north of the equatorial plane.

Prefontaine and Treichel were most animated and most proud when they talked about the Polar Extremes exhibit, which goes to construction tender in the fall, and a boreal forest exhibit that will follow. Hanson's favourite zoo is one of those not-really-a-zoo zoos, the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tuscon, which features complex local animal exhibits and a focus on desert flora and fauna. She said it's the direction everyone at the Valley Zoo wants to go, and Prefontaine and Treichel lit up when they essentially talked about a northern version of it.

"None of this is carved in stone," said Hanson, at the beginning of the conversation, about whether or not the tropical component of the master plan will be realized. "These things always evolve."

Yet at the end of the interview, Prefontaine said, "the Master Plan is set in concrete. Concepts can and will change, but not the vision."

After the interview, outside in the heat of the glorious river valley, among poplar trees destroyed by Saturday's wind storm, Prefontaine ran about as she drew the future Polar Extremes exhibit in the air, overlooking a field with the forest behind. She was truly inspired and, it seemed, truly happy. For the moment, it was a pleasure to talk about anything but Lucy the elephant.