Register Sunday | June 16 | 2019

A Zoo Story

An off-season visit to Quebec's wildlife safari

Parc Safari is the estranged stepchild of Hemmingford, Quebec. The zoological amusement park, with its elephant rides and Congo Golf, would seem to make an unlikely tourism partner for the peaceful town. But the two work well together, the idyllic scenes of Hemmingford providing a visual tranquilizer to counteract the sensory onslaught of the bustling Parc Safari.

Or at least that's how I imagine it would be in summer. Right now it's late September, and after an hour-long drive from Montreal under the reddening trees of another impending autumn, a friend and I pull into a vast, vacant parking lot and stop in front of a smiling plaster pygmy elephant. The lot has an eerie, limitless quality, and the oddity of being the only visitors here makes me feel like we've stumbled upon an abandoned twentieth-century relic.

If only my mother could see me now. When I was growing up on Canada's west coast, I wasn't allowed to go to zoos because she regarded them as inhumane. We were a family that ate only free-range meat. We also raised dozens of guinea pigs and rabbits, which were left to hump unabashedly in open-concept pens. These were more than pets; they were sensitive individuals-friends. I was encouraged to maintain a dialogue with them and to learn from their short lifespans. I became obsessed with knowing what animals were thinking and ordered a book on pet conversation. Through an elaborate pattern of eyewinks and facial twitches, I learned that our house cat, Charlie, had a very dry sense of humour.

I grew up, grew out of sweet naïveté, and into cheap slang, roach joints and shit-talking my gym teacher with his obtrusive sweatpants boners. I began to see Charlie as a shedding, mobile piece of furniture. My parents, who had invested so many years in the nurturing of a precocious and introspective daughter, now found themselves sitting down to dinners with a girl who wore blue mascara and said, "Fuck the system." My animal friends forgot about me and died in captivity, the fanfare of a proper burial abandoned in favour of drinking raspberry coolers with older boys who could almost grow goatees.

Today's visit can be interpreted as an affectionate step back into those dreamy days of thumb-sucking, bug-eyed delight. I am here to reclaim a sliver of childhood that I misplaced.

We pay and enter on foot. To our left the flashy rides of Nairobi Park- passengerless neon boats and an unattended Ferris wheel-whirl in a mechanized synchronicity. The only thing sadder than an empty amusement park is an empty chicken rotisserie stand. The Rwanda Pavilion, Parc Safari's chief commercial hub with its gift shop and numerous food stalls, is completely deserted. The kiosks that do brisk business in summer hawking Pogos and Klondike bars are now occupied by a few rogue seagulls picking at an overturned garbage can. The only employee I've seen so far-besides the woman who sold us our tickets-is a dejected-looking guy standing guard over empty strollers at the information desk.

Judging by the hodgepodge of entertainment options, animals are no longer enough to make a zoo. With its mini-putt, amusement rides, water park and outdoor theatre, Parc Safari boasts a plethora of attractions. Has the attention span of the average zoo enthusiast taken a nose-dive? The place seems to have undergone massive renovations to satisfy the public's need for ever larger dinosaur-shaped pools.

That said, what separates Parc Safari from more traditional zoos is the way the animals live: outdoors, in controlled environments meant to mimic their natural habitat. In the big cats' house, a Bengal tiger tentatively dips one massive paw into a mock pond. The pond looks like a kiddy pool in a suburban backyard. Elsewhere, a hyena paces robotically in a worn track.

I'm secretly thrilled because I've never seen animals like this; I feel less guilty gawking because they're not behind bars. I refuse to acknowledge that we are two college students wandering the wilds of southern Quebec, watching a tepidly interested chimpanzee eat chunks of watermelon. We are incognito in the jungle, spying on ferocious beasts from a suspension bridge slung between two lookout posts. I find that if I tilt my head just so, a cluster of anemic bushes eclipses the chain-link fence.

The authenticity attempted by the park's planners is far from seamless. The ersatz depiction of a heartland full of sage baboons and meditative lions-the sort popularized by The Lion King-is evident everywhere. Like Disney World, this place is meant for escapism, though it's hard to know how to react to "realistic" airbrushed murals of wildlife or "Rwandan" buildings that stand like false fronts in a movie set. This past summer, an internship program was created to allow youths from Rwanda to work in the park. I wonder what they thought of the gigantic wooden mask that peeks through the shrubbery of the Africa portion of the Safari Drive-Thru. Or of the African-Canadians dressed in "traditional" costumes who played bongos all summer next to the outdoor beer garden.

The only other visitors we see are a family of enthused fanny-pack-wearing Americans. They gleefully toss snacks over the electric lines to the squawking macaque monkeys. For a moment, I feel a panicky nostalgia for my pre-Parc Safari life, but this could just be caused by the sensitive recorded moan of a didgeridoo suddenly echoing throughout the square. In fact, it's hard not to fall into a dopey emotional state when interacting with the animals. I find myself regressing into baby talk as I coo and wave at them. I consider sneaking one of the baby monkeys back to my apartment.

We retrace our steps to the parking lot, get in the car and enter the park's main attraction: the drive-through Safari Adventure, a dusty road curling through the "terrain" of three different continents. We begin our journey in the wild badlands of Africa. The only car on the road, we by default quickly become the most popular visitors in the cul-de-sac. A jaunty zebra presses his wet nose up against the passenger window as a circling duo of waterbucks sidesteps toward the car. I roll down the window and pluck two biscuits from the Animal Food box that we purchased with our tickets. The zebra's mouth flaps as he pushes his head into the Volvo and sucks up the generic snacks. I shriek and frantically pat his head, equally alarmed and ecstatic. The waterbucks crowd around the window and start to make a choked hiccuping sound. They are desperate for a snack, and their pointy antlers look like the prongs of a seafood fork. To escape the threat of serious damage to our borrowed car, we flee to Eurasia.

In the Safari Adventure, proximity forces all the animals into mutual respect for each other. A peacock, for example, prances through a flock of seagulls as we drive past. While this is sweetly surreal and creates a mood of zoo equilibrium, it can also have fatal consequences. The best example of this is the outbreak of bovine tuberculosis in 1993. After two antelopes died, Agriculture Canada placed a massive quarantine on Parc Safari. The details concerning what eventually turned into the massacre of 650 animals become hazy after this point. What is certain is that since it was difficult for Agriculture Canada to establish which animals actually had tuberculosis, about two-thirds of Parc Safari's residents were shipped to an undisclosed slaughterhouse. On closer inspection of the corpses, however, it was discovered that many of the animals were free of the disease.

What would you do with thousands of pounds of freshly killed exotic animals? If you were a Parc Safari official, you'd sell as much as possible on the wholesale meat market and give the rest to the poor. Twenty-seven carcasses, approximately 10,000 pounds of zebra, miniature horse, pony and donkey meat, were donated to Montreal food banks and a homeless shelter, to be divided up and distributed for Christmas dinners. The savagery of the zoo industry was momentarily revealed, but with the park now fully replenished it all seems forgotten.

Except that such stories are enough to spoil the childish pleasure one might otherwise get from watching the curl of a giraffe's neck. If zoos like Parc Safari are inhumane, it's not necessarily because they are cruel to animals, but because the environment they've created is bogus, and because they unapologetically endorse the cheap utopia they are selling.

We decide to call it a day. A group of elephants stands in a semi-circle, conspiring around a boulder. From the comfort of the car I reach out with one last treat. Ignoring me, they sway somberly from side to side; an exasperated sigh escapes from the largest one. Small huts pepper the countryside, and I wonder if the animals actually live in them or if they prefer the heated barns where they spend their nights and winters. A crusty camel looms above the car and snuffles the snack out of my hand. It's really quite beautiful out here, the sun setting on the lush maple trees of Africa. As we turn back, the elephants look radiant in the orange light-stalwart prima donnas perpetually on show.