New $450-million Vancouver Zoo to take over Queen Elizabeth Park

Apr 1 2021, 4:15 pm

There are new ambitious plans to turn Queen Elizabeth Park in Vancouver into a world-class zoo attraction and wildlife refuge facility.

The owners and operators of the existing Greater Vancouver Zoo announced today they intend to restructure their organization into a not-for-profit entity, with their animals transferred to a new purpose-built facility that takes over most of the 130-acre hilltop public park at Little Mountain.

The new attraction, simply known as the Vancouver Zoo, will have a focus on research, conservation, and education, with a policy that provides a home for animals who are already in zoological facilities or have been deemed unreleasable to the wild by a third party due to situations such as injury or being orphaned.

A global search is underway to assemble new animal care and research team, with zoo proponents already scouting for zoological expertise and talent in the United States and Australia. A partnership will also be established with Ocean Wise Conservation Association, the not-for-profit entity behind the Vancouver Aquarium, and the University of British Columbia’s Department of Zoology.

“The creation of Vancouver Zoo births a new organization with a commitment to inspire and educate visitors on all the ways they can contribute to conservation and sustainability practices,” said John Hunter, the managing director of the Vancouver Zoo Wildlife Conservation Society.

The not-for-profit organization intends to be a financially self-sustaining organization driven by donors, corporate contributions, and particularly gate revenue, with the zoo’s accessible location within the geographical centre of Vancouver and close to SkyTrain’s King Edward Station and Oakridge-41st Avenue Station expected to be major attendance drivers. This is in stark contrast to the zoo’s existing far-flung location in Langley Township, the eastern edge of Metro Vancouver.

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Aerial view of Queen Elizabeth Park in Vancouver. (Shutterstock)

The project requires approval from the Vancouver Park Board and relevant regulatory authorities over zoological facilities. If it receives all of its approvals, the new zoo is expected to attract up to 1.8 million visitors in its first full year of operation. It hopes to open in the middle of 2029. It will provide the region with a new premier tourism asset, and animal care accountability will improve from increased visitation, as opposed to being at a location that is “out of sight and out of mind.” In contrast, the existing zoo saw about 200,000 visitors in 2019.

“We are bringing the zoo to where people live and where the tourists are, instead of having them come all the way out to us,” said Hunter, highlighting some of the challenges of the existing location in Langley.

“With an exponentially higher annual attendance, all revenues will go back towards providing world-class care to our animals, the upkeep of our facilities and attractions, and our new various initiatives with conservation, research, and sustainability. We want to be in the public’s consciousness in the same light as the Vancouver Aquarium.”

Quarry Gardens at Queen Elizabeth Park. (Shutterstock)

The zoo is estimated to generate $90 million annually for the local economy, and there will be synergies with its location in close proximity to the growing cluster of retail, restaurant, and hotels in the Oakridge Municipal Town Centre.

It will employ 500 people in full-time positions, and provide peak season job opportunities for as many as 200 people. There will also be a volunteer program.

For decades, there was a zoo in Stanley Park, until its closure in the middle of the 1990s. Most of the animals were relocated to what is known today as the Greater Vancouver Zoo.

greater vancouver zoo

Tiger at Greater Vancouver Zoo. (Meimento)

World-class animal facilities

The new zoo is expected to cost $450 million, including $50 million as an immediate direct contribution to the Park Board in addition to the annual lease over a 99-year term, plus $50 million towards new replacement recreational and community facilities at the nearby Langara Golf Course, which will be reconfigured into a nine-hole executive course to accommodate its new more diverse uses.

The remaining $350 million will go towards the transformation of most of Queen Elizabeth Park into a zoo. Precedents for the facility’s purpose-built standards include the San Diego Zoo, Singapore Zoo, Columbus Zoo, Smithsonian National Zoological Park in Washington DC, Sydney Taronga Zoo, and Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Florida.

These costs will be largely funded by the sale of the zoo’s existing 120-acre location in Langley Township for residential development, with the agricultural land reserve designation removed.

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Conceptual-only design of Vancouver Zoo at Queen Elizabeth Park, only for illustrative purposes. Not the final design. (Vancouver Zoo and Wildlife Refuge Society)

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Lion family at the Greater Vancouver Zoo. (Meimento)

Zoo designers will use the most technologically advanced habitat design best practices.

“Vancouver Zoo’s animal habitats will not only exceed regulatory standards by an average of three times, but there will be highly intensive, complex behavioural and environmental enrichment designs to create a healthy level of stimulation that encourages the expression of natural behaviours,” said Hunter, describing designs that greatly contrast with the existing facility.

“Habitats will periodically adapt and change to ensure we give these animals the type of stimulation they experience when they’re in the wild. As well, these immersion exhibits will provide a naturalistic environment to offer our guests a sense of being in the habitats of the animals, such as hidden buildings and barriers, and recreating the appearances of such environments.”

Exotic animals will also be provided with purpose-built, climate-controlled facilities that can accommodate physical and behavioural needs during the cold and wet winter season.

An “insurance policy” for animals at risk

The existing zoo is currently home to 600 animals across 135 species, including the American Alligator, Black Bear, Camel, Capybara, Cheetah, Deer, Giraffe, Grey Wolf, Grizzly Bear, Hippopotamus, Kangaroo, Lion, Ostrich, Red Panda, Ring-Tailed Lemur, Siberian Tiger, Wallaby, Yellow Baboon, and Zebra.

There are short-to-medium plans to eventually grow to up to 3,000 rescued animals across about 500 species and subspecies, including the polar bear within a state-of-the-art $30-million enclosure.

This polar bear exhibit, in partnership with the Canadian Polar Bear Habitat conservation charity in Ontario, is made possible by the Jim Pattison Group.

Jim Pattison Group is contributing $18 million towards both the cost of the new polar bear exhibit and a 100-person capacity immersive indoor experience that incorporates the latest in filmmaking and virtual reality. The theatre’s programming will focus on the threat of climate change, human-induced wildfires, and deforestation on ecosystems and animal habitats.

With shrinking sea ice, polar bears face extinction. (Shutterstock)

“Polar bears are vulnerable to extinction from the gradual loss of sea ice habitat as a result of climate change, and this is forcing them to spend more time on land,” said Jim Pattison, adding that recent studies show polar bear populations could collapse as early as 2100.

“With this contribution, we’re adding to the concerted global effort of helping conserve this species and increase the awareness of the overall plight of human activity that can lead to extinctions.”

Another at-risk focus species at the zoo will be the koala bear, specifically animals injured and orphaned from the 2019-2020 Australian bushfires that can no longer survive on their own in the wild. The zoo has engaged in partnerships with an Australian zoo.


A Koala rescued from the 2019-2020 Australian bushfires. (madeinmada_/Instagram)

According to a 2018 report by the World Wildlife Fund, overexploitation and habitat loss since 1970 have led to a 60% decline in the populations of mammals, birds, fish, and reptiles. These losses are forcing many species to head towards an extinction classification.

A recent United Nations study found that about one million animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction, many within decades, and this is a level more than ever before in human history. About three-quarters of the land-based environment and approximately 66% of the marine environment have been significantly altered by human activity, and more than a third of the world’s land surface and nearly 75% of freshwater resources are now devoted to crop or livestock production.

“There is still a need for responsible, ethical zoological and wildlife refuge facilities as a vital tool to help combat extinction. Animals under our care will be part of the global insurance population for their species,” said Hunter.

“Another component of this animal insurance policy fighting extinction and preventing endangered species will be our long-term breeding and conservation practices. All of this is paired with our strategy of rehabilitation programs with an ultimate goal of releasing captive-bred animals into the wild, wherever and whenever possible.”

In the future, after the zoo opens and is able to prove itself to be a model, successful attraction, Pattison plans on spearheading a campaign to permanently bring giant pandas from China as part of the second and last phase of expansion. This would also require diplomatic tensions between China and Canada to ease.

The Giant Pandas at Calgary Zoo recently returned to China. (Calgary Zoo)

Transforming Queen Elizabeth Park

According to a backgrounder, landscaping work on the park’s perimeters of Cambie Street and Kershland Drive to the west, West 37th Avenue to the south, Ontario Street to the east, and Midlothian Avenue, West 29th Avenue, and West 33rd Avenue to the north will “naturally” conceal security and animal containment fencing.

There will be three zoo entrances for enhanced accessibility and permeability, with the main entrance located atop the park accessed from the existing access road. Unrestricted public access to the Quarry Gardens, Seasons in the Park restaurant, and ground-level viewing points of the downtown skyline and North Shore mountains will be maintained.

Queen Elizabeth Park Reservoir Parking Lot atop the hill will be used for tour bus parking.

At the southwest corner of the park, where the basketball and tennis courts are currently located, a concealed multi-level underground parkade for approximately 3,000 vehicles for both visitors and staff will have a direct passageway leading to the hilltop main entrance for both visitors arriving by car and on foot from the south. The ground-level rooftop of this parkade will be used for structures containing animal care, research, and operational and maintenance facilities.

A third entrance is located at the northwest corner of Cambie Street and West 29th Avenue, providing ease of access for those arriving by foot from King Edward Station and the No. 15 and No. 33 bus routes.

Atop the hill, Bloedel Conservatory will undergo a major retrofit for its inclusion as the tropical bird attraction within the zoo, a departure from its current operational approach as a standalone attraction operated by VanDusen Botanical Garden.

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Conceptual-only design of Vancouver Zoo at Queen Elizabeth Park, only for illustrative purposes. Not the final design. (Vancouver Zoo and Wildlife Refuge Society)

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Gardens by the Bay in Singapore. (Shutterstock)

Perched along the northern edge of the existing public plaza, new public attractions include three super-sized tree trunk-shaped observation towers, interconnected by pedestrian walkways. These towers, covered by greenery, will have heights of between 130 ft and 160 ft. The concept is said to be inspired by the Supertree Grove of Gardens by the Bay in Singapore. The various viewing platform elevations of these towers provide superb 360-degree panoramic views of the entire region, including forever unobstructed views of the downtown skyline and North Shore mountains.

The central tower, the tallest of the trio of pinnacles, will feature the addition of a rooftop restaurant with a patio in a future phase. An 800-ft-long zipline attraction will run from the easternmost observation tower to the western perimeter of the Quarry Garden. The towers can be accessed by internal elevators or staircases and are included in zoo admission.

Within the actual zoo footprint carved within the existing park, there will be five distinct precincts: African Savanna, Americas Explorer, Eurasia Discovery, The Outback, and Tundra Outpost.

vancouver zoo queen elizabeth park

Conceptual-only design of Vancouver Zoo at Queen Elizabeth Park, only for illustrative purposes. Not the final design. (Vancouver Zoo and Wildlife Refuge Society)

Visitors will be provided with a “safari-like” and “cage-free” viewing experience of the animals in African Savanna and Eurasia Discovery, with an extensive network of 15-ft high elevated boardwalk walkways providing a safari-like perspective.

For ease of mobility inside the hill zoo, a new gondola line will run from the zoo’s northwest corner to the southeast corner. There will be three stations: a station serving the entrance near the corner of Cambie Street and West 29th Avenue; a mid-station serving the hilltop for access to the main entrance, observation decks, and tour bus parking lot; and a station at the bottom of the hill on the southeast corner of the park.

The existing Rose Garden will become an attraction integrated into the zoo. It goes without saying the Vancouver Lawn Bowling Club, Queen Elizabeth Pitch and Putt, and disc golf course will not remain, given their significant footprints, as these sites provide ample space for animal exhibits.

The zoo will have a capacity to handle up to 10,000 guests at any given time during the peak summer season. This will be an all-season destination, open daily except on Christmas Day.


Happy April Fools’ Day!

Kenneth ChanKenneth Chan

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