Stanley Park is a Vancouver treasure. With its fine mix of urban and wilderness, it gives tourists and locals alike the illusion of being out in the middle of nowhere. As you wander the park’s many trails, you’re often surrounded by ancient trees that reach into the heavens. Sometimes it can make you feel small. At the same time, though, you’re also steps away from civilization. The Seawall or roadway might just be around the corner. The point is we often celebrate Stanley Park as an oasis of calm in an otherwise hectic and fast-moving world. Yet, this place does hold its secrets: A zoo is one of them.
Unless you were born no later than the very early 1990s, the mention of a zoo at Stanley Park would sound foreign – very out of place. “There’s no such thing,” you might say. “The closest thing to a zoo in Stanley Park is the aquarium!” And that’s true, at least in the current day. Truth be told, though, Stanley Park was once home to a fairly vibrant zoo that housed well over 50 different animals including, monkeys, penguins, reptiles, deer, kangaroos and polar bears. Indeed, that’s probably pretty hard to imagine, especially because practically no remnants of a zoo exist anymore . . . except . . . except for the old cement polar bear habitat.
Seeing it today, this old habitat looks like something of an outlier. It is made entirely of concrete, with many irregular shapes, and doesn’t look much like a place to keep polar bears. In fact, I’d say it looks more like a postmodern art exhibit. If you’re visiting the site without context, you might wonder what it is. Thankfully, the old “Polar Bears” plaque from the 1962 installation remains.
As I observed the polar bear compound in late Fall – with its beautiful foliage – I had mixed feelings. On the one hand, it brought back childhood memories of visiting Stanley Park Zoo and watching the polar bears perform, eliciting many a cheer from the crowd; on the other hand, I couldn’t help but feel kind of sorry for the animals that once lived here. Viewing the compound through a 21st century lens, I couldn’t help but observe, 1) How small the compound is; and, 2) The un-naturalness of it all. There’s nothing here that screams “polar bears” outside the aforementioned plaque. It is little wonder Vancouver closed the zoo after the last polar bear (and final resident), Tuk, passed away in 1997.
The polar bear compound is an interesting fragment – a ghost – of Stanley Park’s past. While I wouldn’t come here just to see it, I do think it’s a worthwhile stop as part of a larger Stanley Park itinerary. For example, if you’re coming to see the aquarium (when it eventually re-opens), why not walk the literal 2-minutes south to this historical curiosity hidden in plain sight? It’s haunting and thought-provoking all at once.