My Canada, 53/150: Beavering away

Canada’s official national animal is the beaver. People question that choice on a regular basis. C’mon, they moan. A rodent?

On Canada Day 2011, the National Post published a great piece by freelance writer Shelley Wright on whither the beaver: should it be our national animal symbol, or not?

53 Beaver poster
Beaver as Canadian war hero:  1918 Victory Bond poster on display at Fort York during Vimy Ridge commemorations. Photo: Kelley Teahen

On the pro side: the engineer of the animal world, a co-operative, industrious worker (a beaver can’t build those massive dams solo), symbolic of the country’s natural bounty, and a key commodity in the creation of modern Canada, being at the heart of the 17th and 18-century fur trade.

On the con side: rodent. Also, the word’s other meaning as slang for female genitalia.

But despite the kvetching, one year I learned the hard way just how entrenched is the love of beaver in the minds and hearts of Canadians.

Yes, gentle readers, let me take you back to “Beavergate.”

The year was 2006. I had joined the communications team at the University of Waterloo. While the university now is in the midst of the City of Waterloo (population 110,000), the campus was originally built on a farm, through which Laurel Creek flowed. Wooden arched bridges now connect paths on both sides of the creek. The swaths of green space and maturing trees along the creek provide a home, then and now, to many birds and other wildlife amid a busy campus with more than 100 buildings.

That summer, a family of beavers took up residence in a wide part of the creek. As beavers are wont to do, they started chopping down trees for wood to build their home. One morning in the fall, maintenance staff discovered a couple trees toppled down over a busy walking path, felled by those busy beavers. No-one had been hit or hurt, but discussions began about how the beavers could be extricated from the campus. Further concerns were raised that the beavers’ dam could cause flooding and possible damage to buildings nearby.

The university consulted with wildlife experts who advised it was cruel to relocate the creatures as beavers are territorial and the university beavers might end up homeless and starving as winter approached. The conclusion: time for a beaver hunt. The least-painful extermination method, the university was told, was an underwater conibear trap. When a beaver swims into it, the sides are triggered to collapse, hitting the creature on the spine and, the theory goes, causing instant death.

Regrettably, those of us in communications weren’t told about the decisions to exterminate until after the fact. Had we heard earlier, we might have shrieked, “Noooo!!! Not a beaver!!!!!”

A university staff person found out about the plan and raised the alarm. The students rapidly jumped on board. It was heresy to kill a beaver because, well, it’s a beaver!!! Wildlife Ontario has archived the news coverage of the controversy, which made local and national headlines. The local newspaper got 300 letters to the editor on the subject.

I have a great affection for Waterloo — I did my undergraduate degree there, and was on staff for six years. But it takes something huge to galvanize the student body, busy as many are with alternating academic study terms with paid co-operative work terms. Beavergate turned into one of those “something huge.”

One day, some students held a solemn funeral service for the beavers, crowding on and around one of those wooden arched bridges. Film crews dutifully recorded their grief. The university got out from under the PR mess by creating a task force to study wildlife on the campus and now has established protocols for managing the effects of beaver and geese and other creatures. According to a 2016 story in the local newspaper, beavers were back on campus and building dams, but the response now is to dismantle the dams, encouraging the creatures to move on to an alternative neighbourhood.

I’ve come to the conclusion that Canadians feel about beavers the way sisters and brothers feel about a younger sibling: they will tease, insult, ignore and trash the little critter. But if someone else picks a fight with the youngster, stand back and watch the family hell-furies burn.

Main photo by D. Gordon E. Robertson – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9381782

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