The recent return of polar bears to the Calgary Zoo again raises practical questions about how these animals can be kept in enclosures that meet their psychological and physical wellbeing. In the 1970s, the Calgary Zoological Society responded to changing public opinion about its caged bear and wild cat enclosures to hire a local architectural firm to redesign its polar bear enclosure. In light of the zoo’s limited budget, however, the Polar Bear Complex went through various stages of planning before its opening in 1973. In addition, creating a more humane habitat for the bears in this “modern” enclosure took different turns with the reality of its location in the heart of Calgary, and, especially, the zoo’s proximity to a river prone to flooding. Celebrated upon its unveiling as one of the most innovative in North America, it equally came to embody the environmental constraints imposed on Calgary’s zoo. In the end, one may justifiably question whether the enclosure served the emotional and physical needs of captive polar bears in the prairie city at all.
Master-planning Polar Bears at the Calgary Zoo in the 1970s
The zoo had had polar bears since 1938. In Canada’s Centennial year, though, the Calgary zoo began a five-year plan to include the building of a new enclosure for its polar bears, for their caged space was then deemed unsuitable, inadquate, and too small. In the early 1970s, the zoo hired an architectural firm to assist in a comprehensive development plan, one that prioritized the design of a better enclosure. One of the oldest firms in Calgary, Stevenson, Raines, Barrett, Hutton, Seton and Partners offered superb technical expertise and proven experience designing structures suited to Calgary’s climate, topography, and widening environmental footprint.
The zoo’s architects did more than simply design new buildings. They helped the zoo confront its major environmental constraints. When the Calgary zoo began forming during World War I, it was located downtown on St. George’s Island on the east side of the city, abutting the working-class railyard district. As its animal collection grew, especially after World War II, the zoo’s space constraints became a liability. By 1968, Tom Baines, a former animal keeper and long-serving zoo director, felt that the zoo needed to move to Calgary’s periphery to locate on cheaper land and give more room to its animals, especially its large mammals. But, despite his suggestions, the zoo and its bear cages stayed where they were. The zoo’s architects, accordingly, initially thought of ways to replace them with larger, separate, and more complex enclosures, as their 1971 “discussion diagram” for the zoo suggests (Figure 1).
Beyond being hemmed in on an urban island, the zoo was situated along the Bow River. Its flooding was of key concern to municipal planners by the 1970s. The zoo itself had been flooded in the past. Topographic surveys revealed particularly vulnerable sections of the island’s south and southeast sections. The city itself was undertaking flood mitigation by 1972, seeking to better control the Bow River through channeling and dyking projects which affected St. George’s Island.
The city’s master river plan and flood mitigation by 1972 prompted new thinking about the zoo’s future growth and the bear enclosures themselves. That year, the zoo’s architects led discussion around very large bear enclosure assemblages that would occupy the highest ground on St. George’s Island. A first phase of construction would build a “polar bear complex” (that included enclosures for other animals like beavers and otters). A second phase would house numerous other species of bears, including tropical bears (Figure 2).
Budget constraints prompted pragmatic thinking about the zoo’s bears later that year. The island-situated polar bear complex would stand alongside and connected to a single “Northern Bears” complex. The polar bear enclosure, then, was pursued with the expectations (and budget considerations) of the Northern Bear complex to follow. (Figure 3).
All of this planning fit into the zoo’s overall flood strategy. By 1973, the zoo was envisioning St. George’s Island still being used to show bears and some other animals in open enclosures, but it would ambitiously expand facility construction across the river, literally on higher ground. This would occur in three phases of development. The first phase focused on the island’s “walking zoo” which would include the bear complexes; the second phase would engage visitors to access a “drive-thru” zoo across the river allowing them to see large hoofed animals in a grasslands complex. A third phase would feature a “hilltop” development to showcase exotic, mostly African animals, and even an African village exhibit (Figure 4).
As it turned out, enormous cost projections and the zoo’s own changing priorities shuttered most of this planning. Even the Northern Bear Complex was beyond the zoo’s budget, and it was cancelled in early 1974.
Planning the Polar Bear Complex
As a central piece in the zoo’s longer term planning, the Polar Bear Complex was nevertheless fully designed and built. The architects consulted with zoo staff and visited other zoos to develop ideas for Calgary’s polar bear enclosure. In the early 1970s, the environmental movement and the public’s gaining appreciation of animal rights prompted zoos to turn to landscape architects to redesign enclosures as open concept spaces, as natural as possible, and provide animals enormous “habitats.”
In the early 1970s, the environmental movement and the public’s gaining appreciation of animal rights prompted zoos to turn to landscape architects to redesign enclosures as open concept spaces, as natural as possible, and provide animals enormous “habitats.”
Early in their thinking, architects adopted the open-concept cement enclosure as a design. It would provide bears much larger space in a cement structure and a more complex environment. The firm’s working files included the layout of the Cologne Zoo’s polar bear enclosure in Germany, built with a number of cement shelves for bears to move about and around a spacious pool. The architects also visited other zoos to see naturalistic polar bear enclosures. These included the Bronx Zoo with its sheer cliffs and waterfall, the Philadelphia zoo’s polar bear grotto as well as the terraced cement enclosures at Lincoln Park and Brookfield Zoo in Chicago. The architects kept on file snapshot photos of bear enclosures that provided animals larger space across terraced pits, naturalistic features like rock caves and cliffs, and faux icebergs as backdrops (Figure 5).
Figure 5: Snapshot photo inspirations for Calgary’s Polar Bear enclosure. Right two photos, unidentified (likely the Pittsburgh Zoo); Left two photos, unidentified (likely the Detroit Zoo). Stevenson Raines fonds, University of Calgary, File 2092.
The “Ban the Bars“ Campaign
To actually build the enclosure, the zoological society had limited reserve funds. The zoo could count on the City of Calgary for some capital project grants. Alberta Government funding could also be tapped. But as its architects projected the complex’s costs, the zoo had to turn to the public. It launched its “Ban the Bars” campaign in 1972 which aligned well with the sentiments of Calgarians who saw the zoo’s existing caged enclosures as inadequate and cruel. (Figure 6)
The campaign’s mocked-up image of the future polar bear enclosure (Figure 7) featured naturalistic design and large space. Bears would have freedom to roam in a varied environment of terraced pools bordered by rockwork. Foliage framed the bears’ world in the image. There were plans to retain the copse of poplar trees already existing in the space, while more foliage would border the enclosure and be reflected across the surface, as we see in the image, of the bears’ large swimming pools.
The zoo’s architects continued to refine design of the Polar Bear Complex. Zoo staff believed that while trees, shrubs, and grass would be ideal in the enclosures of other bears, the polar bears’ had to be entirely of rock or cement. Otherwise, they would introduce dirt, stones, and foliage into their pools while swimming, which would overwhelm filtration systems. The use of cement also raised the question of its colour. The zoo’s planning committee agreed that an epoxy coating could be applied to the concrete that “would stay on, as it was felt that this would enhance the ice-like atmosphere.” (Polar Bear Complex Meeting 20 October 1972, file 2094, Stevenson Raines fonds, University of Calgary). The choice of material and colour for the enclosure had vast implications for the bears themselves. They would live in a white cement world, amidst jutting concrete sheets that looked like icebergs.
The choice of material and colour for the enclosure had vast implications for the bears themselves. They would live in a white cement world, amidst jutting concrete sheets that looked like icebergs.
The island’s flood potential decisively influenced the complex’s design. The structure had to be built off the floodplain and seasonal watertable by some twelve feet. Visitors, accordingly, could walk into a “dimly lit indoor mall with viewing through 2” thick glass windows into the exhibits,” one of the chief architects explained. This eliminated the need for fifteen-foot-deep moats common at other zoos, and visitors could see “the bears directly thru [sic] glass both into their walking area and underwater into their pools.” (J. Barrett, “Notes on Development of the Polar Bear Complex, October 19 , file 2094, Stevenson Raines fonds, University of Calgary). The possibility of seeing animals “face to face” behind glass, and even as they swam underwater became a major selling point of the new enclosure. Calgarians were promised a closer perspective of the animal than offered anywhere in North America.
With design moving in this direction, however, it encouraged an intrusive perspective on the animals themselves. The bears could be seen everywhere and at any time within their space (except in private denning pens in the back and a secluded exercise yard). The overhead gallery would allow visitors to see the bears from above, or through glass directly into their enclosure, and even underwater as they swam. Seeing the animals through glass obviously appealed to Calgarians, who at the time enjoyed all the same perspectives in indoor shopping malls. Indeed, blueprints of the Polar Bear Complex called it a “mall,” and as it was completed, a Calgary Herald reporter described how “Calgarians will be ushered into a mall-like space … The roofed-over mall is lined on each side by tall, watertight windows—like storefronts but actually the walls of the water-filled tanks holding the animals.” (Calgary Herald, 16 October 1973).
In its construction and maintenance, significant constraints soon came to the fore. Final planning included a waterfall that the bears could enjoy. Zoo staff told the Herald reporter that the bears “can sit under the waterfall and take a shower or play games like King of the Castle where one tries to pull the other into the pool” (Herald 16 October 1973). Shortly into its operation, however, the waterfall degraded the cement it was falling upon. Calgary’s winter frost heaving further degraded the cement when the waterfall was turned off. The first sheering behind the waterfall occurred in 1974. Remedial patching proved inadequate, and a sizeable chunk of concrete broke off during the following winter. Very troubling was the report of a Calgary cement contractor who believed that annual repairs would be needed to maintain the concrete around the waterfall.
The enclosure’s windows themselves, perhaps the complex’s greatest attraction, soon proved a significant concern. A Pennsylvanian firm provided the specially-manufactured glass and shipped the panes, but some arrived chipped and unusable. Soon after the complex was opened to the public, another pane showed cracking. A city inspector worried that the underwater windows might fail, his concerns echoed by the zoo’s director, Peter Karsten: “If the polar bears could escape into the public area, we certainly would have a major safety problem” (Karsten to Joel Barrett, 7 August 1975, 2092). An engineer was asked to speculate about the real stress requirements of the glass to withstand the brute force of a fully grown polar bear should it charge at spectators behind it. Even in May 1974, the bears needed to be sequestered into small holding areas for a week while the cement behind the waterfall was repaired, and they stayed there for the entire month while replacement sheets of glass were installed.
Nevertheless, when it first opened to the public, Calgary’s Polar Bear Complex was vaunted as unique in the world and lauded for the “habitat” it provided its animal inmates. In many ways, the enclosure did offer visitors a spectacular view of the animals, especially underwater (Figure 8). Yet, the final structure came to embody the process of architectural planning, not only in respect to the known (and unknown) behaviours of polar bears, but the zoo’s budgetary constraints. The complex was also built within the zoo’s ambitious long-term expansion plans, however currents of landscape engineering were influencing innovative zoo enclosure design at the time. Calgary’s Polar Bear Complex ultimately reflected the reality of limited budgets and the environmental constraints imposed by St. George’s Island (Figure 9).
A Bear’s Life in a Cement Pit
The Polar Bear Complex proved utterly inadequate to meet the mental and physical wellbeing of its bears. Designed to host as many as six bears (it was hoped that Calgary would have one of the largest collections in a North American zoo), over time the zoo had to limit their numbers and carefully manage their interactions. Bears acted unexpectedly in the enclosure. Males turned aggressive towards females and young animals, a behaviour plausibly triggered by the sheer stress they felt from intrusive visitor viewing. Between 1974 and 1975, aggressive males killed two young bears. The zoo had also to segregate one of them most of the time from the females. By 1979, in an experiment to deter that male’s aggression, the zoo had a dentist grind down the bear’s canine teeth, but to no avail. He was then transferred to another zoo.
Animal rights groups and newspaper editorialists lambasted the zoo for creating an environment driving bears crazy with boredom and then drugging them to make them appear happy.
More fundamentally, the sheer monotony of the cement enclosure triggered stereotypic behaviours among the bears. This affected all the aging bears over time. One of the enclosure’s last females so obsessively paced, well over 60% of her waking hours, that the zoo treated her with Prozac. Animal rights groups and newspaper editorialists lambasted the zoo for creating an environment driving bears crazy with boredom and then drugging them to make them appear happy. Multiplied efforts by zookeeper to diminish bear stereotypies through “environmental enrichment” equally failed. They tried to add interest to the bears’ lives by feeding them “fishcycles” (blocks of ice containing fish), converting one of the pools into a sandbox, and attempting to stimulate the animals through games.
When the last of Calgary’s zoo polar bears died in 1999, the Calgary zoo announced that it had no intention of reintroducing polar bears to the enclosure. Even the grizzly bears placed in it temporarily turned on each other aggressively. The Zoo’s CEO announced that year that its “old and outdated facilities such as the polar bear venue…” would be replaced with “something new and modern that is going to position the organization into the next millennium, with a huge added attraction to the city” (Calgary Herald, November 6, 1999). In 2006, the zoo unveiled plans for an entirely new enclosure, one with larger space and greater natural features. Calgarians, however, had not forgotten the animals in the polar bear complex. Zoocheck in collaboration with a Calgary animal welfare group easily gathered public support against the zoo’s plans. A billboard appeared on Memorial Drive and lawn signs popped up across Calgary protesting the return of polar bears to Calgary. In 2014, the zoo, citing rising construction costs, deferred the new polar bear enclosure to its longer-term planning. The 2023 reintroduction followed up on that planning.
In the present as in the past, zoo enclosure designs develop within contemporary human culture and still-limited animal science.
However, the zoo’s 1973 Polar Bear Complex should be remembered while raising doubts about this new facility. In the present as in the past, zoo enclosure designs develop within contemporary human culture and still-limited animal science. Design processes continue to submit to and reflect the fiscal and environmental constraints zoos confront wherever they are located. There are obvious limitations in any effort to enclose an Arctic animal in Calgary. We will soon witness how these polar bears are affected by Calgary’s air pollution, their urban geography, and, more troubling still in climate change, this prairie city’s rising average summer temperatures.
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