Simon has discussed the highs and lows of various policies regarding wildlife treatment in national and provincial parks and we’ll discuss this in further detail in the coming months. But there is one area of discrepancy between parks that I feel requires critical attention: The educating of tourists by park employees and their resources, such as signage and visitor centre displays.
When trekking to find my much needed morning coffee, we often head to visitor centres for an electrical outlet. While waiting for water to boil, Simon and I will check-in with staff to learn about wildlife spotted in the area. While some places are quite friendly and excited to share stories and information, other centres are close lipped and not very helpful at all.
Here’s what I find more intriguing though. While Simon speaks with park staff, I love wandering around the visitor centre to educate myself on local species, giving myself the chance to get the lay of the land of the regions we’re visiting (hey, I’m a geo teacher!). What I’ve observed is that when comparing a visitor centre that is staffed with enthusiastic, educated and helpful employees, the animal displays are quite different from those centres staffed with park officials who are aloof and secretive about wildlife sightings.
Good: Riding Mountain National Park
The bad – Peter Lougheed Provincial Park
What’s the difference? It’s the portrayal of the taxidermied wildlife. I’ve never seen a wolf in the wild with snarling, foaming, vicious teeth. In fact, if you visit Manitoba’s Riding Mountain National Park’s visitor centre, all of the wildlife displayed looks exactly as how I’ve observed them in the wild. It’s also truly a centre for visitors, where rangers gladly share their knowledge and will spend as much time as required to help educate interested tourists. And the park as a whole encourages people to appreciate wildlife, rather than rubber bulleting animals away from onlookers.
Peter Lougheed Provincial Park’s visitor centre is at the other end of the spectrum. A mother and son were checking out the displays of different wildlife and came upon the wolf featured above. The kid exclaimed, “ohh mommy, that is so scary, what is it?” The mom went on to inform her son that this was a big bad wolf, just like in Little Red Riding Hood – something that you should never encounter because they will eat you. She informed her son that wolves don’t belong in the wild and that they are cold blooded killers. Then she referenced the stuffed wolf, saying: “See how evil they look?”
What?! My mouth was agape. The two park officials just looked on and smiled.
Is she talking about these wolves that we have seen in our various travels?
I’m not suggesting that wolves don’t attack prey or even livestock, but few will disagree that wolves are highly misunderstood, perpetuated by myths exaggerated over centuries. Why would an institution that supposedly exists to advance conservation, place animals on display – like wolves, like grizzlies – that play into the hands of the stereotypes and not present wildlife in an accurate way?
I also don’t believe for a second that those who work at Peter Lougheed (found within Kananaskis Country) dislike wolves, but since their conservation strategy is to act antagonistically toward tourists and discourage them from watching the animals, I have to question, yet again, what they’re thinking. Allowing misinformation to be spread in order to “keep animals wild” might help one or two individual animals in one park, but very well might plant the seeds that doom the entire species. Talk about throwing the baby out with the bath water.
Riding Mountain and Peter Lougheed provide the most interesting contrast, but they’re not the only parks where you will find a correlation between pro-education rangers and accurate representation of taxidermied animals or, if you will, education-lite rangers and taxidermied wildlife re-enforcing tired cliches.