Wrestling star turned zookeeper
Al Oeming, 88, died on March 17, 2014 in Edmonton, Alberta, from complications of heart surgery.
Born in Edmonton, Oeming and his boyhood neighbor Stu Hart served together in the Royal Canadian Navy during World War II, then became professional wrestlers in Harlem, New York, in the National Wrestling Alliance, ancestral to World Wrestling Entertainment. Oeming, who was also studying ornithology, wrestled as “Nature Boy.”
Oeming and Hart eventually began promoting professional wrestling in Edmonton. Oeming, “after completing his master’s degree in zoology and becoming the Edmonton Zoological Society’s inaugural president, sold his half of the wrestling venture to Hart and built the Alberta Game Farm with the proceeds,” recalled Toronto Globe & Mail obituarist Omar Mouallem.
Started with cheetah
“Oeming already had a pet cheetah,” named Tawana, whom he toured with doing wildlife shows, “and some other animals,” Mouallem wrote, “but the game farm became an Albertan Noah’s Ark, believed to be the world’s largest private animal collection, drawing thousands of visitors each weekend. The game farm also had breeding and research programs for rare wild animals. At a time when urban zoos crammed animals into small enclosures, Oeming took great pride in his 500-acre facility’s open spaces and large compounds.”
Oeming starred in several television documentaries, including In the Land of the Black Bear, Wild Splendor, Journey to the High Arctic, and the 13-episode CBC series Al Oeming: Man of the North, aired in 1980.
Initially the Alberta Game Farm featured exotic wildlife, but in 1982 Oeming sold the exotic species, built a polar bear compound, and reopened the facility as Polar Park, featuring all cold-climate species.
“Polar Park lost lustre”
“By the 1990s,” Mouallem observed, “Polar Park had lost its lustre as animal rights groups increasingly targeted zoos. Oeming came under scrutiny of Alberta’s Fish and Wildlife department for allegedly selling a Japanese deer to an unauthorized buyer. The charges were dropped, but pressure from animal activists weighed on him heavily. The naturalist, who had once berated the Edmonton city council for running an inhumane zoo, now ran a facility that drew criticism from another generation of activists. Polar Park closed in 1998.”
“By the time it closed, amid criticism from groups such as Zoocheck Canada, there were just 500 animals,” down from 3,200 at peak, “and maybe 200 visitors in a weekend,” recalled Canadian Press.
Oeming turned the former Polar Park property into an auction venue, specializing in selling horsedrawn vehicles. Eldest son Todd, reported Mouallem, “has been planning for several years to redevelop the farm into an eco-resort and wildlife sanctuary called Wild Splendor.”