Well. What can I say about this month’s photo? Let’s start with: finally. I took this shot in the early summer of 2014 and it instantly became one of my all-time favourite pictures I’ve captured at the Zoo. There was no doubt in my mind it would appear in the 2015 calendar…. except it didn’t. We moved that summer and somewhere along the way I had a devastating hard drive crash that resulted in a lot of my photos being unavailable for me to use in creating the calendar. I did recover it, though, so it was absolutely going to appear in the 2016 calendar. Except…. it didn’t. In the late summer of 2015 I stumbled upon Samson and his mate, Shintay, playing in their pool and was captivated. A couple of hours and several hundred snaps later I knew that my prowling Samson shot was going to have to wait. Again. But this year I couldn’t deny it a third time, so here it is: the feature shot for the month of May. I love everything about this shot: the posture, the expression, those claws. Samson is a very photogenic bear – take a look at the wonderful expression on his face in the photo at left – but this was something exceptional for sure.
I love bears. I have for as long as I can remember – at least as far back as Balloo in The Jungle Book, and the magnificent title character in the old Gentle Ben television series in the ’60s. I will never forget my first sighting of a grizzly in “real life”: passing through Yellowstone Park in the Spring of 1971 when all traffic suddenly came to a halt to watch an enormous brown beast raise himself up on his hind legs off the side of the road and scent the air. I can see that image in my mind as clearly as if it were yesterday. Don’t get me wrong: my passion for bears doesn’t hold a candle to that of my friend Sue Maynard (who wrote a couple of guest pieces for my other blog last year which you can find hereand here). It may not even compete with Trish Ramenda’s love either, but it can’t be far behind. There’s just so much character in their expressions and so much playfulness and joy of life in their spirits that I find it impossible not to adore them. As of this writing, there are four different “kinds” of bears at the Toronto Zoo; when listed, though, the joke should become apparent: there are pandas, grizzlies, polars, and “Ice Bears”, the latter being a kind of energy-saving machinery to run the air-conditioning in the Caribou Cafe. Ok, well… I didn’t say it was a good joke. Simmer down. Shall we proceed? Ok, then.
The grizzly exhibit at the Toronto Zoo is one of my favourite places to visit, but it has its issues. For one thing, it’s at the very bottom of the Canadian Domain, requiring the descent of a very steep hill – and of course the subsequent ascent of the same slope – which makes the decision to drop in on the bears not as easy as one might think. When the Zoo was first designed in the early ’70s, there was a “monorail” in place (not technically correct, but that’s the nickname that has always stuck) which traveled all around the Zoo but was especially constructed with the Canadian Domain in mind; in fact, its official name was the “Domain Ride”. It hasn’t been operational since the mid-’90s and nothing has replaced it to this point, so access to the lowest points of the Zoo is entirely people-powered. Also, because this area is virtually the same as it was on opening day in 1974, the enclosures leave something to be desired. Sensibilities at the time were very different from today; the Toronto Zoo was incredibly “progressive” in attitude and layout but still, that was over 40 years ago and a lot has changed in that time. In the particular case of the grizzlies, I think it’s safe to say that anyone with any interest in them whatsoever – Keepers, management, visitors, etc. – would far prefer to see them in a much larger enclosure in future years. However, having said that: the exhibit is actually remarkably well-designed for the era with plenty of enrichment opportunities (some, of course, may have been added along the way), lots of natural light and air flow, and – of great interest to the guests – absolutely wonderful viewing access for the most part. There are two enormous windows looking into the exhibit which are slightly slanted in order to cut down on glare from the sun, as well as some opportunities to see, hear, and smell these glorious creatures through large-gauge fencing at either end of the visitors’ area. Once the trek has been made to see the bears, the reward makes it all worthwhile.
Plans are already in place to move all of the animals in the Canadian collection from their current barely-accessible location to a place between the current Tundra Trek and Eurasia Wilds, at the north end of the main (“ground”) level of the Zoo in a few years. The area is expected to be called “Wilderness North” and the current Americas Pavilion will then become the “Tropical Americas Pavilion”, handing off its Canadian animals to the new area. It will be a while before this comes to fruition as there are still projects such as an outdoor area for the orangutans (at long last!) which are scheduled to happen first. Still, it’s an exciting development to look forward to, and you can read more about it in the Zoo’s “Master Plan” – a .pdf which is available to read online. In the meantime, the current site of the Canadian Domain appeals to me a great deal precisely because it is difficult to access and therefore always considerably less busy than the rest of the park (except possibly Eurasia, which I discuss in my other May post concerning the “Baby Boom!” calendar). Furthermore, when one heads down that hill into the Rouge Valley to the Weston Pond wetlands at the bottom on a sweltering summer’s day, it is a delightfully refreshing experience. There are many shade-giving trees in the Domain, and the air temperature can drop by close to 10 degrees Celsius on some of the hotter, more humid days. It feels many days like you’ve left the Toronto Zoo and headed north to one of our beautiful Provincial or Federal Parks a few hours’ drive from Toronto. It’s really quite lovely.
And if that doesn’t do it for you, I’m sure Samson and Shintay will make room for you in their delightful pool, if you ask nicely enough!
I’ll leave you as is my custom with a few more photos of Samson and Shintay; first, though, I want to tell you what’s in store for you in June. We’ve had polar bears on the cover and grizzly bears in May. June will offer you a glimpse into the life of one of the two remaining “types” of bear at the Zoo. You can work out whether there’s a lesson in HVAC machinery forthcoming, or…..
See you in June!