Where the wild things are

Like most parents at the Toronto Zoo, Charles tends to relax and let his kids have fun. He occasionally raises his voice if things get out of hand, but mostly he spends his time in the shade, watching his brood as they explore.

As with many Torontonians, Charles was born elsewhere — Gabon, in his case, in 1972. He arrived in our city two years later, the same year the zoo opened, and later established himself as a headline-grabbing abstract expressionist painter. Though those heady times are more than a decade behind him, he's still prodigious in other respects: he fathered a son earlier this year.

Charles the gorilla and his band are among the top attractions at the Toronto Zoo, an award-winning, 710-acre menagerie that is the third largest by area in the world. The zoo is internationally known for its high success rate in captive breeding and reintroduction programs for rare and endangered animals, including the black-footed ferret and the cichlids of Lake Victoria. Staff and administrators are also dedicated to preserving and enhancing the ecology of the local Rouge River and Valley. There's a Butterfly Meadow, a wetlands program, an all-out ban on drinking straws (they can harm native and exotic animals), plenty of preservation-oriented signage, and paths through dense forests between exhibit zones that make the zoo a largely fantastic walking experience.

But some areas clearly need redevelopment — especially the Canadian Domain, which was built down in the Rouge Valley in 1976 in an attempt to display animals like bears, moose, raccoons, bison, and cougars in a natural setting. It's the reason why the zoo built a monorail, which shut down after an accident in which a train failed in its attempt to climb the steep slope that separates the Canadian Domain from the rest of the zoo. These days, you have to brave the hill on foot — a journey that's perilous on the descent and a veritable Class Five summit trek on the way back up.

The zoo recognizes this, of course, and if all goes according to plan, the Canadian Domain animals will be moved in 2013 from the valley to a plot of land in the north end of the site — near the recently completed Tundra Trek exhibit, which features polar bears, arctic wolves, snowy owls, and reindeer. A tropical Americas zone is also in the works, and the Eurasia domain — which appears today as it did when the zoo opened more than 30 years ago — will be updated, too, with the unveiling scheduled for 2011.

All of this is part of the North Zoo Site Redevelopment, a multi-phase plan paid for through fundraising initiatives, gate receipts, and debt financing. City Councillor Paul Ainslie, who joined the zoo's board in 2008, has been a vocal critic of the board and some of its decisions — including the controversial move in which the volunteer-run Toronto Zoo Foundation was disbanded last September. He wanted to see the foundation restructured, and is skeptical of the zoo's proclamation that it will raise $250 million to help pay for things like the redevelopment. "To me, it's an overly ambitious plan," he says. "You look at the fundraising the zoo did this past year, since we've done away with our foundation, and it's been the bare-bones minimum as we've tried to reinvent the wheel in terms of fundraising."

The redevelopment remains on track, but the City recently altered the zoo's list of priorities based on their projected funding streams. "We basically told the zoo that if something got bumped down the list that's because it's got a large fundraising component," says Ainslie. "If the zoo can show it can raise that money and meet its obligations, the City's more than happy to bump those priorities back up the list."

Big things are coming to the Toronto Zoo — in addition to the North Zone plan, they are now very close to securing giant pandas. But prioritizing based on the surety of funds, instead of urgency, is detrimental to the animals, the people who care for them, and those of us who just want to walk through a local park that happens to have gorillas in it