Edmonton Valley Zoo needs $10.9M in upgrades to meet national standards, city report says

The Edmonton Valley Zoo on Buena Vista Road first opened as the Storyland Zoo in 1959.  (Travis McEwan/CBC - image credit)
The Edmonton Valley Zoo on Buena Vista Road first opened as the Storyland Zoo in 1959. (Travis McEwan/CBC - image credit)

The Edmonton Valley Zoo needs $10.9 million worth of repairs over the next four years to meet national standards and keep the facility open, a City of Edmonton capital budget report states.

City council will be asked to approve the requested funding in the 2023-2026 budget this fall.

Some animal enclosures no longer meet standards set out by Canada's Accredited Zoos and Aquariums, the report says.

Many animals in the zoo's evolving collection are in enclosures that were not designed and constructed specifically for their species. In many cases, the enclosures have not kept pace with current standards.

"In some cases, the safety of staff and patrons is compromised,' the report says. "We run the risk of being shut down if these deficiencies are not addressed."

Gary Dewar, the zoo's director, counters the report's wording, saying he wants to make it clear that public safety isn't being compromised.

"We certainly have the protocols in place to prevent that," Dewar said in an interview Wednesday. "I can assure everybody that they're safe, there's no chance of being bitten by one of our animals."

Dewar is part of the city administration team requesting the funding over four years, starting in 2023.

Dewar said the facility is currently accredited under CAZA but that standards are evolving and the zoo needs the money to replace facilities and enclosures.

"There is very strong likelihood that we will not be in compliance in the future with animal care standards," Dewar said.

Animals need more room

The report lists a number of deficiencies with the zoo, including enclosures for zebras, birds of prey, camels, trout and seal ponds as well as the elephant pen.

The existing zebra stalls are deemed outdated and unsafe for handling animals; the exhibit area for the birds is too small to allow flight; and the camels need a permanent outdoor holding area to allow staff to safely train and perform veterinary procedures.

Dewar said employees have been injured after an animal comes out of sedation.

"The animal suddenly springs up and, because of the design of the enclosure, backs into a staff member, the staff member sustains a shoulder injury."

Staff have required days off and medical treatment after being injured, he said.

Requests for comment from CAZA were not returned by Wednesday afternoon.

Councillors question urgency

Coun. Sarah Hamilton said some councillors toured the zoo in the summer and were alerted to issues but wondered why the report's strong wording indicates an emerging urgency.

"I don't think it's as dire as it's made out to be," she said. "But obviously now we have a responsibility to make sure that both animals and employees are safe."

When council reviews budget requests in December, Hamilton said she expects zoo funding will be a fairly high priority.

Coun. Tim Cartmell questioned the urgency put forward in the report, noting that zoo upgrades are part of the city's regular maintenance and renewal.

"These are facilities that are approaching 60 years old," Cartmell told reporters Wednesday.

"The decision was made almost 20 years ago that we were going to stay in the zoo business and renew and regenerate the zoo, so that's what's happening."

The new budget request is in addition to $50 million in to previously approved upgrades called Nature's Wild Backyard, part of the city's updated master plan from 2005 when the city committed to redevelop the zoo.

Dewar said it isn't a last-minute funding request and that the zoo has been making piecemeal adjustments over the years.

"We'll fix this, we'll make this adjustment, we'll do a little switch here," he said. "But in the end, perhaps a whole new handling system is required and that's what we're pursuing through this."