In mid-December, I went with my family to Lycksele djurpark, our ‘local’ (2-hour drive away) zoo. The zoo is closed for visitors during the winter season except for four weekends before Christmas when it is open as Julparken where the kiddies can visit Santa Claus and his real reindeer and see the animals who are not hibernating. The great thing about this zoo is that it is one of the few that has both muskox and beaver. Well sort of…

Looking into the fenced beaver enclosure at Lycksele djurpark, Sweden, 14 December 2013. Photo by FA Jørgensen.

Looking into the fenced beaver enclosure at Lycksele djurpark, Sweden, 14 December 2013. Photo by FA Jørgensen.

There is a beaver enclosure, which is marked on the visitor map you get at the entrance. It is a big fenced in wetland area and a viewing building. In the building, there is a nesting room with hay and a feeding chamber which have glass for the visitor to peer through and observe the beaver. But as we looked through the glass, no beaver was to be seen.

However, next to the window, there was a webcam monitor. The text explained that beavers were often difficult to see, but here was a video of one. And, yes, indeed the video showed a beaver eating out of this exact feeding chamber. So the beaver was here. Or was it?

Beaver webcam video playing inside the beaver enclosure building dated 2010. 14 December 2013

Beaver webcam video playing inside the beaver enclosure building dated 2010. 14 December 2013. Photo by Dolly Jørgensen.

I noticed the date on the lower right corner of the video: 2010-07-01. So the video showed a beaver who lived in the enclosure 3 1/2 years ago. Hmmm. And while the zoo’s page used to list ‘beaver’ as one of the zoo’s animals (I found it via the Wayback Machine), when their website was revamped in mid-2013, beaver was not included as one of their animals. The beaver is no longer at the zoo.

It’s quite unfortunate that the beaver isn’t there because Lycksele djurpark is one of the few places I’ve seen that tells the reintroduction story on their information boards:

Beavers are Europe’s largest rodents. It was made extinct in Sweden at the end of the 1800s. Today’s beavers are the result of releases of Norwegian beaver during the 1920s and 30s.

So the enclosure is empty. No beaver is there. This makes the information given to the visitor out of date. But will the visitor be distressed at the beaver’s absence? Or will she just think the beaver must be hiding or sleeping or cutting down trees? Will she still learn that the Swedish beavers are the result of reintroduction?

Muskox at Lycksele zoo. 14 December 2013. Photo by Dolly Jørgensen

Muskox at Lycksele zoo. 14 December 2013. Photo by Dolly Jørgensen

Up the hill from the beaver pond, the muskoxen live in a forested enclosure. When we saw them, they were standing quite still as the sun was setting (at 13:30 – it is after all northern Sweden) and light snow was falling. But while we had been eating lunch in the cafe, we’d seen the muskox move. A big tv screen shows the live webcam feed from select animals in the park – and one of those is the muskox, which you can also watch. Unlike the beaver, the muskox cam is live and the animal is there is all of its shaggy glory.

Just as at the beaver enclosure, the muskox enclosure also tells about the muskox’s return to Sweden. But the information is dated, just like the beaver video:

The muskox was extinct in Sweden already 3000 years ago. In the year 1971 a small group of emigrated from Norway into Härjedalen in the western part of Sweden. 20 years later there are 35 muskoxes [sic] in Sweden.

[Note that this information is given only in English at the bottom of the Swedish sign with muskox facts]

While the sign was correct 20 years after the muskoxen arrived in Sweden, 20 years after that, the information is woefully out of date, as the herd size has been greatly reduced — were only 7 in summer 2013 after the release of Idun.

Instead of getting this little info snippet, the Swedish-reading visitors get another whole board, the title of which translates are “The wild muskox is threatened with extinction in Sweden. Lycksele djurpark is working on the project: ‘Save the muskox, an attempt to save the wild population which consists of 8 animals.'” This sign brings the story up to 2003 when an intervention was made to remove the existing dominant male (Ingemar) from the wild herd and let the younger male Linus take over. Again, the visitor is left in the dark about the 10 years between the sign and the present, which turns out to have been struck by one disaster after another as first Linus disappeared in 2004 and then Willy (who was a muskox from the Kolmården zoo) was released to be the herd’s male but died after a year. Now 10 years after that board was put up and the intervention project started, the herd has only 7 individuals, even after the addition of Idun this year. The information given is not wrong, but it is dated.

Telling a history of animal reintroduction/conservation that goes up to the ‘present’ is a dangerous thing for a zoo to do. Information quickly becomes out of date, so unless there are plans to update the signs or take them down, it may be best to stick to the older information like the original reintroduction date or place, which is much more unlikely to need revision. At the same time, it seems a shame not to tell the visitor everything you know up to the time the sign is made.

The moral of the story of my visit to Lycksele zoo might be best summed up by something Liam Heneghan tweeted a day ago:

Stories properly told have no discrete end. They haunt us beyond the articulation of the final syllable.