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Secrets of Stanley Park: A look at what — and who — call it home
August 28, 2014. 3:24 pm • Section: B.C.
Vancouver’s Stanley Park provides countless experiences and stories for eight million visitors each year.
But what — and who — calls the massive urban park home?
Stanley Park officially opened in 1888 and, like the City of Vancouver which grew up with it, the beloved crown jewel has evolved dramatically over the last century. New creatures were introduced to the park and cohabited with native species. Some have flourished and others have perished.
And the park is still changing. This week, The Province conducted an informal census of the 400-hectare national historic site, to take a snapshot of who and what lives there now — and to see how that picture has changed over the decades.
1970s: 80 swans
1980s: 30 swans
2009: 11 swans
2014: 4 swans
The large, majestic, white mute swans found in Lost Lagoon were one of several non-native species introduced into the park in the 1930s for the entertainment of humans.
Their population numbered as many as 80 swans in the 1970s, but has dwindled to the point where two pairs remain, two males and two females.
“The swans have been dying out over time and not replaced,” said Robyn Worcester, Stanley Park Ecology Society’s conservation programs co-ordinator. “We’re down to about four swans at this point, and when those ones pass away, we’ll have no (non-native) swans left again.”
Though visitors to the park might be sad to see the last of the beautiful animals disappear from Lost Lagoon, ecologists say it’s in the best interest of the park’s ecosystem. As a non-native species, the mute swans have had a detrimental effect on their habitat, and have scared away native species of swans.
Because these birds often mate for life, some of the more romantic Stanley Park nature lovers might find it especially poignant when the second-to-last swan dies, leaving the world’s loneliest swan behind, to float around Lost Lagoon all alone.
Cougars used to run wild in the area now called Stanley Park, along with other larger mammals such as elk, wolves and bears. In 1911, though, Stanley Park’s last cougar met a bloody and dramatic end.
As was reported extensively in The Province at the time, in October, 1911, the story began when a series of animals from the Stanley Park zoo were found slaughtered over a few days: a stag, goats, a 125-pound buck.
Park officials suspected a cougar was the culprit, and the hunt was on. The park superintendent recruited police officers for a hunt, but to no avail.
The Province offered up its own $50 reward for any hunter who could deliver the cougar’s dead body to the newspaper’s head office on Hastings Street.
Eventually, three hunters, accompanied by three foxhounds, set out to find the beast. A reporter from The Province named Hugh Savage also tagged along, and was presumably far less helpful than the hounds.
Savage noted that the hunters, who hailed from Cloverdale, “were of the type which we in Vancouver know too little about — the men who live near to nature.”
After the Cloverdale men bagged the beast, The Province declared: “This cougar hunt has been so remarkable as to be almost without parallel in the annals of Canada … Hunting absolutely wild, big game within the limits of a big city.”
The cougar, measuring more than two metres from tip to tip, was stuffed and displayed in the front window of The Province offices for a time.
Since then, it’s unlikely a cougar has set foot in the park, Worcester said, and if a cougar has ever passed through in the last 100 years, no one at Stanley Park Ecological Society has ever heard about it.
2014: About 25 (20 squatters and five caretakers)
Archaeological evidence suggests people had lived in the area now known as Stanley Park for thousands of years before Vancouver was declared a city.
A 1876 B.C. Reserve Commission census counted 50 aboriginal people living there, with 151 chickens. But by the 1880s there were as many as 200 living in the park, said Sean Kheraj, author of Inventing Stanley Park: An Environmental History. These were mostly aboriginal people, including the 100-person settlement of Xwayxway, near the site of Lumberman’s Arch. But there were also European families near Brockton Point and a handful of Chinese settlers.
Historian Jean Barman, author of Stanley Park’s Secret, said the park also holds an important place in the histories of many of Vancouver’s communities, including Chinese, Japanese and South Asian.
At a time when certain Canadians weren’t allowed to eat at restaurants or use swimming pools because of the way they looked, “you came into Stanley Park and nobody would kick you out.” In her research and interviews with Asian Canadian historians, Barman said a recurring theme was Stanley Park providing a respite from the hostile racism of early-20th-century Vancouver.
“Stanley Park was the only place in Vancouver where you were equal,” Barman said. “The one story I’m repeatedly told … people would say, ‘We would go to Stanley Park, and we were just as good as anybody else.”
In more recent decades, the park has been home to people, many of whom prefer to live in tents in the park instead of shelters in the Downtown East Side. Estimates of their numbers have varied widely, from hundreds of homeless residents in the park at a given time, to about a dozen.
This week, Stanley Park rangers estimated there are about 20 people living in the park. That number has stayed relatively stable over the last five years or so, rangers said, although the faces change, and numbers increase slightly in summer months.
Five caretakers also live in three fieldhouses spread throughout the park.
GREAT BLUE HERONS
2007: 183 nests
2013: 116 nests
This unique subspecies of heron has been found in the park as far back as written history. Their colony has moved around the park over the years, from Brockton Point, to Beaver Lake, to the colony’s current home on Beach Avenue near English Bay. Although the herons seem to be abundant in Stanley Park, this is one species that ecologists are concerned about. The birds’ overall population is declining, and the heron colony in Stanley Park actually represents a significant portion of their population, said Worcester.
2014: Between four and 10
Despite the name, Beaver Lake was free of beavers for most of the last century.
Beavers were in the lake back in 1907, when it got its name. But Beaver Lake was not home to a single beaver for nearly 60 years until 2008, when one found its way there via a waterway, to the delight of local scientists and nature lovers, said Worcester.
“We went through a time when there were no beavers in the park,” Worcester said. “But we had a beaver move into Beaver Lake, finally, after all that time … so that’s pretty special.”
1989: Two nests
2014: Five nests
“Eagles have rebounded in their population across North America,” Worcester said. In B.C., “They seem to have adapted to urban environments.” While there may have been only about two nests in Vancouver in the 1950s, she said, the city now has about 20 nests, a quarter of which are in Stanley Park.
2014: Five (estimate)
Coyotes, which are native to the U.S. Midwest, didn’t arrive in Vancouver until the 1980s, said Dan Straker, the Stanley Park Ecology Society’s urban wildlife programs co-ordinator. One family of coyotes lives in the park today, with their diet mostly made up of small rodents. The first appearance of coyotes in the park coincided with a reduction in the number of rabbits, which were abundant back in the 1970s.
EASTERN GREY SQUIRRELS
This species is not native to B.C. About a dozen of the furry critters were introduced to the park in the early 20th century. There is some dispute as to where they originated: a widely known story had eight pairs of squirrels arriving from New York in 1909, but more recently Kheraj, an environmental historian, uncovered documentary evidence suggesting that the first dozen grey squirrels actually came to Stanley Park from Pennsylvania two years later.
Either way, the little creatures have flourished in the park, and beyond. No one has a good handle on how many grey squirrels are in Stanley Park today, but Straker says their number is in the hundreds.
To this day, all the eastern grey squirrels in B.C. — ranging from North Vancouver to Chilliwack — are thought to be descended from that original handful that immigrated a century ago to Stanley Park.