For Al Oeming, a zoologist who had live-trapped grizzlies before the advent of bear tranquilizer, bottle-feeding a grizzly on his Alberta Game Farm was business as usual, until it wasn’t.
One day in the mid-1970s, as Big Dan – four years old and 272 kilograms – guzzled his breakfast of milk, nutrients and maple syrup from an oversized baby bottle in Mr. Oeming’s hands, an elk broke out of its pen and leaped into the grizzly compound. Panicking, Big Dan knocked Mr. Oeming over and then sank his canines into his handler’s back near two lower lumbar vertebrae and lifted him off the ground. If it hadn’t been for Mr. Oeming’s muscular physique, which he had maintained since leaving professional wrestling, the damage probably would have been much worse. “He was incapacitated for weeks,” remembers Jim Poole, a keeper on the game farm. “Then he was right back at it. He was one of the toughest guys I’d ever met.”
Injuries were rare on the farm, located 35 kilometres east of Edmonton, and never deterred Mr. Oeming from his mission to educate and inspire future conservationists. His work often took him on the road, travelling across Canada with pet cheetah Tawana to speak at schools and amphitheatres. He also became a TV personality and documentary filmmaker. At its peak, his game farm housed more than 3,000 animals and 166 species.
“Every time you turned around, it was a new adventure,” recalls his eldest son, Todd. “If you weren’t catching big-horn sheep to trim their feet, you were tranquilizing a Siberian tiger to clean out the pus in its mouth.”
The adventures ended in the late 1990s as the public’s attitudes toward animal captivity soured. Mr. Oeming sold all but a few horses and chickens to zoos, but he never left. On March 17, he died from surgical complications, just weeks before his 89th birthday.
The middle child of German immigrants Albert and Elspeth, Albert Frederick Hans Oeming was born in Edmonton on April 9, 1925. Smart, ambitious and macho, young Al learned to speak fluent German and read Latin, but loved nothing more than wrestling his neighbour Stu Hart, the godfather of Canadian pro wrestling, who was like a big brother to him.
The two remained best friends until Mr. Hart died in 2003. Their machismo grew while they served together in the Royal Canadian Navy during the Second World War, bench-pressing each other and fellow seamen. Mr. Oeming was a gunner on HMCS Stadacona in the South Pacific. He didn’t see much action, but in 1946, along with his discharge papers, he brought home two 20-kilogram artillery weights he had purloined, and connected them to a pulley and headpiece to work out his neck. This exercise contraption, along with a blood-stained wrestling mat from his youth, never left the basement of Mr. Oeming’s home on the game farm.
After the war, the 21-year-old and Mr. Hart rented an apartment together in Harlem, N.Y., fighting in the National Wrestling Alliance under “Toots” Mondt, co-promoter of what would become the WWE. He wrestled up and down the eastern seaboard as the Nature Boy.
His father, a chef with Canadian National Railway, instilled a love of wildlife in young Al, but it wasn’t until the 1950s, when he and Mr. Hart bought the Alberta rights to the wrestling league, that he could fund his passion. The “Boy Promoter,” as the local papers referred to him, put together matches, starring Gorgeous George, Strangler Lewis and other greats of that era, while he majored in ornithology at the University of Alberta. After completing his master’s of zoology and becoming the Edmonton Zoological Society’s inaugural president, he sold his half of the wrestling venture to Mr. Hart and built the Alberta Game Farm with the proceeds.
Mr. Oeming already had a pet cheetah and some other animals, but over time the game farm became an Albertan Noah’s Ark: muskox, otter, sika deer, tame wolverines, gazelles, camels, all three species of zebra, two white rhinos, two elephants stomping the grounds in knitted booties, silverback gorillas that enjoyed KFC every Friday, and red pandas traded by Communist China at a time when few Westerners could penetrate the Bamboo Curtain.
Some animals enjoyed extra privileges, such as Tonga the lynx, often found purring on Mr. Oeming’s living room sofa, or Bearable Ted, a black bear sent to Mr. Hart’s wrestling events to tackle men in the ring.