Throughout the summer, visitors to the Calgary Zoo will have an opportunity to see a parade led by a polar bear.
And although the real polar bears don’t arrive at the zoo until later in 2023, this life-sized puppet version offers visitors an opportunity to see just how large and majestic the real ones are.
And not just polar bears. The Green Fools Theatre Society has created a number of puppets to engage the public in the Wilder Institute/Calgary Zoo’s conservation work.
“Our specialty has always been building realistic-looking puppets,” said Green Fools Theatre artistic director Dean Bareham.
“I really wanted them to look as real as possible to give that sense of wonder and awe,” he said.
The parades will happen around 11 a.m. most days, with different routes throughout the zoo. Among the puppets on display, besides the polar bear, are a greater sage grouse, whooping crane, burrowing owl, and a great grey owl.
“The kids’ eyes just pop when they see them, and it gives our staff a chance to talk about animals that might not be on park, but are around and about in our conservation projects,” said Alison Archambault, director for brand and engagement at the Wilder Institute/Calgary Zoo.
“It also makes for a really special day when folks aren’t expecting to see them, and they come blowing on out, and our staff singing and doing all sorts of fun things,” she said.
Giving people a chance to get closer to the animals
The parade on July 21 proved immensely popular with children visiting the zoo during that morning.
It wasn’t uncommon throughout the park to hear the excited cries of “polar bear!” And that is precisely the goal of the zoo: To give kids an opportunity to see up close something they wouldn’t be able to safely see in the wild.
“We don’t want the public engaging with polar bears in an up-close sort of way in the wild, or when our polar bear sanctuary opens in 2023, but it does give kids a sense of how big these bears are—why they would need space to move, and why they would have hunting challenges,” said Archambault.
Another goal for the parades is to familiarize the public with a handful of the species that are part of the Wilder Institute/Calgary Zoo’s 18 ongoing conservation programs.
“When people care about something, they care about saving it. And they can’t care about something without actually having seen it, and without being educated about it, otherwise, it’s just something that lives somewhere else,” she said.
“So what we’re trying to do is to bring the magic to the park, bring the education to the park, and engage in conversations.”
The zoo has been holding daily Bug Bashes, where young visitors to the park get to dress up as bugs and caterpillars, and butterflies, dance to music, and learn about the biodiversity and importance of these creatures to the environment and biodiversity.
“The same is true with our parades. When you know about why animals are important in the greater fabric of biodiversity, then you can care more and take actions to save them,” said Archambault.
Green Fools has long partnership with the zoo
Bareham the puppet parade continues the work that the Green Fools Theatre Society has done with the zoo for over 20 years.
That partnership began with a show called Project Whooping Crane, which told the story of the endangered crane species and the conservationists who worked to preserve them, and which the Green Fools still tour.
“As Green Fools, we’ve always tried to create shows that have a very strong ecological or environmental message,” said Bareham.
“The fact that we can do anything to help the conservation of the animals, and help create awareness about the conservation animals, is fundamentally important. That’s why I had to work with the zoo,” he said.
Although some of the puppets are a little larger than their real-life counterparts, especially the burrowing owls, Bareham said that this wouldn’t affect the magic and suspension of belief that the kids would get when seeing them.
“So you get is a hands-on experience of seeing something. I think it builds empathy, and I think that’s what theatre and puppets do.”
For more details on the puppet parades, including schedules and routes, see www.calgaryzoo.ca or the zoo’s social media channels.