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City hopes to see more than just new wolf enclosures at Thompson Zoo

There are some changes coming along at the Thompson Zoo scheduled for the next couple of months, but the City of Thompson is eager to ensure those changes don't just stop at what's necessary but also look at ways to improve the zoo's facilities overa
Zeus, a 10-year-old male timber wolf, and Neige, a 10-year-old Arctic wolf, will hopefully be in a newer, bigger pen in 2010.

There are some changes coming along at the Thompson Zoo scheduled for the next couple of months, but the City of Thompson is eager to ensure those changes don't just stop at what's necessary but also look at ways to improve the zoo's facilities overall.

Erin Wilcox has been the executive director at the Thompson Zoo for almost six years, and has been working at the facility for a total of 12. She started off working at the zoo while she was attending R. D. Parker Collegiate and later went on to take an animal science program and received an environmental science degree at the University of Manitoba.

Wilcox says the zoo has an operating budget of just over $200,000 for this year, the majority of which comes from the City of Thompson. The zoo also does contract work with Environment Canada, holds several fundraisers throughout the year and receives provincial and capital grants. The City of Thompson looks after the zoo's operating costs and is its main stakeholder.

One of the main things the zoo is working on right now is a partnership they have with Spirit Way and other key stakeholders to increase the living capacity for the two wolves that are at the zoo. Wilcox says the Thompson Zoo is looking at becoming more modernized all around with a long term strategy, but will start with upgrading the wolf pens.

Volker Beckmann, volunteer project co-ordinator with Spirit Way, says the idea for updating the wolf pens came about a couple of years ago when Salt Spring, B.C. artist Robert Bateman's 1990 painting "Wolf Sketch," reproduced at a height of 10 storeys on the Highland Tower apartment building here by Winnipeg muralist Charles Johnston of C5 Artworks, started attracting tourists. He says he and a couple other people decided that if people were going to come to Thompson to look at the wolf mural and wolf statues, they should end up going to see the two wolves that live at the Thompson Zoo.

Beckmann says Spirit Way approached city council about updating the wolf pens last summer and made a presentation last fall to the board of directors at the Thompson Zoo to say that Spirit Way wanted to help raise money to put new wolf enclosures in place. Last December, after the Thompson Zoo agreed to partner with Spirit Way on the initiative, representatives went to the City of Thompson and got its approval early on in 2009. Spirit Way then started applying for grants for funding for the new wolf pens. They've heard back from two grants, which they were unsuccessful in securing, but are still waiting to hear back from a few more.

Spirit Way also brought up the director from Assiniboine Park Zoo in Winnipeg to look at the current state of the wolf pens and what needs to be done to modernize them. A committee was formed, made up of notable people in the community such as people from the School District of Mystery Lake and the Rotary Club, Wayne Hall, Penny Byer, Marion Morberg and more. The group met with Wilcox and the director of the Assiniboine Park Zoo and he gave the advice that the group would have to entirely redesign the wolf pens, since the cage that is in existence now was built over 25 years ago and does not meet the standards of enclosure for wolves today. The committee put together a concept of what would have to be done to ensure safe and secure protection for the animals.

Beckmann says the committee came up with a budget totaling around $180,000 to rebuild the wolf enclosure and are hoping to start some of the work this year and finish in the spring of 2010, in time to bring a new set of wolf pups to the Thompson Zoo and create a full three quarter acre wolf park enclosure in the spring of this coming year.

After this the committee brought up Paul Paquet, an individual who Beckmann says is Canada's most experienced wolf biologist, and started talking with him about rebuilding a wolf enclosure. It was at then, Beckmann says, that the initiative not only rebuild the wolf pens, but to turn Thompson into a major wolf capital was born.

At the end of May, Beckmann traveled to Ely, Minn. to visit the community's international wolf centre and meet with its curator. The committee then met with the City of Thompson to explain their plan and what information they had gained from Beckmann's trip to Ely and other wolf centres they'd spoken with on the phone.

"They generate 10,000 to 30,000 visitors a year some of them raise huge amounts of money from wolf sponsorships, some of them do wolf seminars, some of them do wolf workshops, so we came back to the city in May to say that if we build this thing, we feel it could be a profit centre, it could make money for the zoo," Beckmann explains.

Spirit Way has now raised about $97,000 for the new wolf pens. Recently the Rotary Club held a golf hole-in-one tournament and will be donating the money raised from that to the initiative.

On top of raising money and getting new and improved wolf facilities, Beckmann says Spirit Way plans on presenting the City of Thompson with a wolf management plan.

"Now it's up to the City of Thompson to decide how to implement that. They'd sort of have a year to figure it out, but we're not just going to dump it in their lap. We'll present it to them with a detailed management plan," he says.

Coun. Oswald Sawh is the city council representative and has been working with Spirit Way and the Thompson Zoo on this initiative. He says that the city would like to see new wolf enclosures but also thinks it's important to create an overall strategic plan for the zoo for the next several years. Sawh says the city is working on having the manager from the Assiniboine Park Zoo in Winnipeg come up again and do an assessment of the zoo to explain what upgrades it needs, as well as have public consultations to see what the citizens of Thompson would like to see in their zoo.

"At the end of the day we all have to work towards the zoo being properly resourced. In the past there have been questions about what the zoo wants, in the long term, and whether they are properly resourced to do that eventually, we will see what areas need improvement, and, of course, we're going to have to put a price tag on that. So at the end there will be a council decision as to what additional resources the zoo needs and how we will get those resources for them," Sawh explains.

Sawh says the evaluation of the zoo and the public consultations will all be part of a focused, strategic plan for the zoo, and hopes to undergo both initiatives starting in the fall so that the information can be included in the City's upcoming budget process.

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