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 into British Columbia’s largest
metropolis, these once-dominant local critters took a back seat to human
Now, a new Museum
of Vancouver exhibition is re-examining this rich ecological past – and
pushing for a better relationship between humans and nature. Opened 27 February,
Vancouver runs until 1 September.
“This is the first exhibition in Canada to look at the
history of a city through the other species living there,” said guest curator JB
MacKinnon, whose 2013 book The Once and Future World 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 taxidermy
animals, multimedia exhibits and flora and fauna tableaux.
The displays illuminate several surprising stories,
including how, in the 1880s, a wolf was shot a few streets away from where the
museum now stands and how a 109m tree – the tallest
ever felled in Canada – was axed here around the same time. Huge California
condors were once recorded in the area by early naturalists, but they have
not been seen here since.
There is much more to the exhibition, however, than
MacKinnon pointed 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 said.
Equally encouraging is the story
of local salmon. “There used to be 120km of fish streams here, but most are now
underground,” MacKinnon said. “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, MacKinnon said.
“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,” he said. “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
It’s this wider debate about how to best 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,” he said. “We need to
look at how we can rebuild relationships with those creatures we are
comfortable living with.”
John Lee is the
Vancouver Localite for BBC Travel