New exhibition rewilds Vancouver
When European settlers arrived in the densely forested western Canada region that eventually became Vancouver, they were continually glancing over their shoulders for the hungry bears and wolves that already called the area home.
But as the city grew to become British Columbia’s largest metropolis, these once-dominant local critters took a back seat to human development.
Now, a new Museum of Vancouver (http://www.museumofvancouver.ca) exhibition is re-examining this rich ecological past – and pushing for a better relationship between humans and the area’s natural order. Opened this week, Rewilding Vancouver (http://www.museumofvancouver.ca/exhibitions/exhibit/rewilding-vancouver) runs until September 1.
“This is the first exhibition in Canada to look at the history of a city through the other species living there,” says guest curator J.B. MacKinnon, whose 2013 book The Once and Future World(http://jbmackinnon.com/books.html) inspired the exhibition. “When I finished the book, I wanted to apply the ideas to the place I live and show what would still be living here – bears, elk, wolverines – if we hadn’t arrived.”
Visitors enter the exhibition beneath a large model of a Steller’s sea cow – regional waters once bristled with these hulking, now extinct mammals – before facing a tooth-and-claw menagerie of taxidermied animals, multimedia exhibits and flora and fauna tableaux.
The displays illuminate several eye-popping stories, including the wolf shot a few streets away in the 1880s; a 109-metre tree – the tallest ever felled in Canada – axed here around the same time; and the huge California condors that early naturalists recorded but have not been seen here since.
But there’s much more to the exhibition than documenting loss.
MacKinnon points out that while many species have retreated from the growing city others have moved in. Vancouver’s raccoon population has increased 20-fold since the 1940s and coyotes – formerly absent here – began appearing during the 1980s. “People didn’t like them at first, but many are now happy sharing the city with them – there are now around 400,” he says.
Equally encouraging is the story of local salmon. “There used to be 120km of fish streams here but most are now underground. There’s been a lot of talk in recent years of ‘daylighting’ [uncovering] these – especially after salmon spawned in Vancouver for the first time in decades in 2012.”
But while many Vancouverites would welcome fish with open arms, some animals are harder to reintegrate, according to MacKinnon.
“In recent years, grizzly bears have moved to within 50km of Vancouver. We need to ask ourselves if we’re willing to live alongside them and how can we do that. If we do make space for them on the edge of our city limits, we’d be the only big city in the world to achieve that.”
It’s this wider debate about how best to restore nature to modern cities that MacKinnon aims to spark.
“I’m hoping Vancouver can have a vigorous conversation over rewilding. We’ve been building things for ourselves for all these years but we could instead design the city for others as well. We need to look at how we can rebuild relationships with those creatures we are comfortable living with.”