One of the most popular attractions in Calgary, AB, Canada is the Calgary Zoo. Situated just east of the city’s downtown core adjacent to the Inglewood and East Village neighborhoods, part of the Calgary Zoo is in Bridgeland and a large portion of it is on St. George’s Island. The 120-acre Zoo is organized into these distinct zones: Destination Africa, Canadian Wilds, Penguin Plunge, Dorothy Harvie Botanical Gardens and ENMAX Conservatory, Eurasia and the Prehistoric Park.
The Calgary Zoo was opened in 1929 and is operated by the Calgary Zoological Society, an independent not-for-profit organization that is Alberta’s oldest registered charity. The Calgary Zoo has been Canada’s most visited zoo and in 2015, it was recognized by TripAdvisor when given the Travelers’ Choice Award. In the same year, the Zoo was named one of the top three most respected organizations in Alberta, and is one of the most beloved brands. That’s not all. It’s one of the top zoos in the world for conservation research.
The Prehistoric Park and the visitors’ fascination with dinosaurs when they roamed Alberta millions of years ago is one of the most talked about exhibits. In the early days of the Zoo circa 1934, the Prehistoric Park was originally referred to as the Natural History Park. Dinny the Dinosaur is the last dinosaur in existence at the current Prehistoric Park from the original Natural History Park which officially opened its doors in 1937. R.B. Bennet, the M.P. for Calgary West, presented the completed Park to the City of Calgary to much fanfare and excitement.
“Dinny the Dinosaur was made out of cement. Back then in 1934, they didn’t have as much knowledge then as they do now especially since the Tyrell Museum and Dinosaur Provincial Park is opened in Alberta. In the 1930s, it was the only thing of its kind but the models eventually crumbled because they were made out of cement,” explains Trish Exton-Parder, Lead, Media Relations representative at the Calgary Zoo.
The Prehistoric Park is one of the biggest pieces of art on display in Canada. The history of this Park is fascinating because it’s not just the sculpting of the dinosaur models which can be 30 metres high as seen in the Apatosaurus dinosaur. The landscaping was a challenge to design and mold as well, along with researching and creating the horticulture to reflect the physical recreation of the environment and drama that took place 65 to 135 million years ago.
Previously, Alberta was covered with lush jungle and shallow seas. The land that is now 2,000 feet above sea level was at sea level during the existence of the dinosaurs. Contrary to popular belief, oil did not come from dead dinosaurs. Natural gas and oil are typically found in areas where there was once a vast seabed. The presence of rich fossil fuels is a result of a process called anaerobic decomposition which means that dead matter is broken down by microbes without any oxygen. Eventually, the decomposed matter becomes kerogen, a part of the sedimentary rocks. With time, heat, and pressure on the rocks, gases and oil are released from the kerogen. (References – Oil: Not Exactly Dead Dinosaurs or Does Oil Come From Dinosaurs?)
The Calgary Zoo’s first prehistoric park emerged long before the 1947 Leduc number one oil discovery that would lead to Calgary’s phenomenal fast-paced growth as Canada’s oil capital.
The idea to build the dinosaur models from scale came from the Zoological Society Director Lars Willumsen who visited the dinosaur park in 1932 at the Hagenbeck Zoo in Hamburg, Germany. He returned to Calgary with enthusiasm and miniature models of dinosaurs with construction specifications on building the life-size dinosaur models.
Dr. Omer Patrick, the Zoological Society’s first president, was presented with the idea by Willumsen. Immediately, Dr. Patrick raised $1,500 to start the three-year project to build the Natural History Park on the west side of St. George’s Island.
The Zoo approached the model-making scientifically using the best materials at the time. In fact, there was a Canadian-American collaboration. Canadian Dr. Charles Sternberg, a paleontologist with the Natural Museum in Ottawa, directed the construction of the full-size models. His assistants were his associate Dr. J.M. Russell and American Dr. Barnum Brown from the American Museum of Natural History in Washington. They discussed everything about dinosaurs including the sounds they made which would later be included in the animatronic dinosaurs exhibited today at the Calgary Zoo.
The Park evolved throughout the years, was landscaped and re-landscaped. Models were added, amended and re-amended as a more educational scientific approach became part of the presentation. Much of the work in the early years was done by the assistance of volunteers but this was not recorded. There were challenges then like finding the right materials that would be durable enough to survive changing weather conditions.
In 1975, the live exhibits were in expansion mode and a choice was presented to the Zooplan Associates and the public whether to keep the Prehistoric Park or let it go to make room for more wild live animals. Surprisingly, the public pleaded to keep the Prehistoric Park.
Dr. Potter Chamney, a palaeontologist, headed a committee to find a new park location. The decision was made to use the Zoo parking lot on the north side of the Bow River between Memorial Drive and the river west of the main entrance. The new Park design was based upon the Mesozoic Era from 225 to 65 million years ago. Numerous examples of dinosaurs from Alberta which existed 75 to 65 million years ago were considered.
In the 1970s, the materials used to build the models were switched to fiberglass. The models were arranged differently too; by habitat not by putting the models in chronological order. The vision of organizing by habitat was linked to a flowing water system that included: Mountains, a Volcano, Swampland, Hoodoos, Canadian Shield, and Shallow Sea. The challenge and expense of building mountains in Calgary and landscaping them with plants and vegetation that could survive chinooks, blizzards, and droughts, was met with a ‘can-do’ attitude and financial support from the oil industry as a gift on the City of Calgary’s Centenary (1883-1983).
However, problems arose with construction and finances. The plan to use inexpensive soil cement proved unworkable due to it cracking from cold exposure. Gunnite, a more suitable choice, was twice the price. Although the energy industry agreed to pay the extra cost, the price of oil fell from $50 to less than $20. The City of Calgary stepped in and made it happen by accessing Provincial grants. The Federal Government, an enthusiastic community, and The Devonian Foundation, all pitched in with funding to purchase some of the models for the Zoo. When the oil price recovered, oil company owners fulfilled their promise and delivered the donations. The Prehistoric Park opened in 1984 to much acclaim.
“A lot of the landscapes were hand carved by our construction team at the Calgary Zoo and they were made out of fiberglass. It took a while to create. It’s what looked the most realistic. We hit on a time frame when kids were enthusiastic about dinosaurs. It made sense to link it to live animals. Back when we first opened, we had interpreters. Now there are more hands-on activities. We have more people talking about fossils, and extinction, the linkage between animals today, and prehistoric times,” explains Exton-Parder.
Also, there are hands-on interactivities and an App where kids can learn all about dinosaurs. “Over the years, we added the animatronics to make them move. It’s not the most popular exhibit in the zoo because they are not live but kids always want to go to the Prehistoric Park,” adds Exton-Parder.
The Prehistoric Park was refreshed last year as they redesigned it with more interactive stations, repainted the dinosaurs, and made it more educational for visitors. Great support and feedback were given. “People were excited and engaged in the revitalization of the Park especially with the refreshed appearance, new information, and interactivity that was added,” shares Exton-Parder.
Overall, the Calgary Zoo is popular so it depends on personal fondness which exhibits people prefer. The Prehistoric Park is a big hit specifically with children as they learn about the historical significance of the dinosaurs that once existed in Alberta.
During the devastating 2013 Calgary flood, the Prehistoric Park, Canadian Wilds, and Penguin plunge survived. One-third of the Calgary Zoo was opened after the flood and these were the exhibits that were not as affected by the flood because they were on the north side of the Zoo even though the Canadian Wilds is partially near the river. Calgarians, other Albertans, and Canadians across the country donated funds to rebuild the Calgary Zoo. This included individuals, groups, organizations, governments, oil and gas companies, other companies, and children who gave up their allowances for their beloved Calgary Zoo.
With its contemporary themes of education, conservation, scientific study with modern technology added, the Prehistoric Park still remains one of the best exhibits at the Calgary Zoo for learning and entertainment. By recreating this prehistoric time, it helps visitors understand the past while integrating new technology for a realistic experience.
When you take the tour at the Prehistoric Park, every now and again, the silence is interrupted by dinosaur roars abruptly followed by collective screams then laughter of visitors who were not expecting the dinosaurs to move or make sounds. The Prehistoric Park is truly a historic and artistic accomplishment that all Calgarians are proud of considering the many challenges that occurred during the design and manufacturing process. To this day, so many locals and visitors ask about the Prehistoric Park and flock to the north side of the Calgary Zoo which was designed in honor of a prehistoric time when dinosaurs roamed freely across Alberta.
To plan your visit to the Calgary Zoo, check out this section on the website.
Reference: The Evolution of the Calgary Zoo by Tyler Trafford