When I was a kid in Sudbury, in the evening, after a day of running through the forest and swimming and canoeing in Lake Ramsey, I went with my father to one of Al Oeming’s travelling conservation outreach presentations. I seem to remember my dad being upset at seeing a cheetah on a leash. My father has always been a little ahead of his time on questions of universal justice, I think. I remember reading in my elementary school “reader” (I wish I remembered the title of that book!) about Oeming’s boyhood dream of one day having a natural space to house animals, where the cages would be around the visitors, not the animals. I remember vividly the image in the story book of young Al tripping over a root as he walked through the woods, picking himself up, and realizing that this patch of land in the Beaver Hills east of Edmonton was what he’d been dreaming of.
A number of years later, I found myself living in Sherwood Park, east of Edmonton. As a teen I went with my family a few times to Oeming’s Game Farm. Oeming’s park was past its prime and perhaps past its time already. I remember my father being again uncomfortable in Oeming’s presence. Perhaps it is witnessing my father’s discomfort with Oeming’s captive animals — for all the sophistry of the cages being for visitors — that has left me with a lifelong dislike of zoos. Whatever the reason, I have as long as I can remember, felt that humans really should set aside huge areas of the planet as “no-go” areas. I have a dream of an extension of Canada’s Rocky Mountain parks across Southern Alberta to the Cypress Hills, and in my dream, we wouldn’t be allowed to enter that huge park except for scientific study. I think I actually dream that park boundaries should be the bars of humanity’s cages.
Whatever the shortcomings of his GameFarm/Polar Park, Al Oeming inspired a love of nature and wildlife in a couple of generations of Canadian kids, making a whole lot of environmentalists who might never have existed. He may well have inspired some of the very people who ultimately — correctly — shut down his Polar Park. Oeming with his work and the animals with their sacrifices, had served an educational purpose which just might be the seed of a better world.
If I am in any sense an environmentalist, it is, at least in part, due to Al Oeming.
Al Oeming died a few days ago, asking that there be no funeral, no memorial, only his ashes mingling with the spruce roots he tripped on as a boy in the woods.
Rest in Peace amongst the spruce, Mr. Oeming.