Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

More and less; a better zoo

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It might not make us the polar bear capital of the world -- that honour belongs to Churchill -- but the remarkable exhibit planned for Assiniboine Park Zoo will undoubtedly put the city on the map as both an Arctic education centre and a place where visitors can get up close and personal with giant ice bears.

The new facility and research centre, scheduled to open in 2013, is also a model for what zoos should become in the future. Unlike the confined spaces of the past, the bears will have several acres of land to explore and call home.

Captivity usually changes the behaviour of zoo animals, making them poor models for study, but the larger landscape will permit the bears to actually fade into the background and away from public view, hence the need for a Tundra Buggy to escort visitors. The use of barrier-free designs -- rock outcroppings, moats and other devices -- will create the impression of a natural environment shared by the bears with musk ox, caribou, Arctic fox and other species.

The Assiniboine Park Conservancy, the arm's-length agency that is managing the redevelopment, says the zoo in the future will likely feature fewer animals, but in better and larger displays. The focus will also be on animals from the Northern Hemisphere, such as snow leopards and Siberian tigers, although species from the south will not be ignored.

The zoo wants to be an experience that is not just good for visitors, then, but for the animals, too, a sentiment that was long overdue.

The zoo was a popular destination in the 1970s when it underwent a series of renovations, but its popularity has faded. It attracted just 377,000 people last year, for example, compared to highs of over 500,000 in the 1980s and early 1990s. The introduction of an entrance fee in 1993 may have hurt attendance, but the fact is fewer people were actually excited about a trip to the zoo. It was a place that people visited with their kids until even the kids didn't want to go anymore.

The redevelopment should encourage Winnipeggers to reconnect with the zoo, which has been part of the park's landscape since 1904 when the parks board purchased a number of native animals, including deer, elk and bison. The first bears arrived in 1908 and the first polar bear in 1939.

The new polar bear centre and the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, which will open around the same time, will both offer visitors experiences they will only be able to get in Winnipeg. For some things, at least, all roads will lead to Winnipeg.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 3, 2011 A10

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