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Al Oeming: Nature lover and wrestler was larger than life

Al Oeming with a grizzly bear known as Big Dan, which attacked him one morning during breakfast. He was seriously injured, but recovered. “Then he was right back at it,” says Jim Poole, who was a keeper on the game farm. “He was one of the toughest guys I’d ever met.”

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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.

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"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.

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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.

May (née Dennistoun), who married Mr. Oeming in 1950, and her sons Todd and Eric were just as fearless with the animals. "There was no union or hierarchy. If there was a job to do, we all pitched in to get it done like farmers," Todd Oeming says.

The 3,200 creatures were maintained by 20 to 30 keepers, many of whom lived on the farm. At its peak, Alberta Game Farm was 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.

Mr. Oeming's PhD research into the links between two grizzly species was never completed, but years later the University of Alberta gave him an honorary doctorate.

At a time when urban zoos crammed animals into small enclosures, Mr. Oeming took great pride in his facility's open spaces and large compounds. His facility was ahead of its time. The guidebooks read: "To the people the world over who love and appreciate animals as much as I do."

Decades earlier, as the Edmonton Zoological Society's president, he had lobbied the city for a more humane zoo that resembled the species' natural habitats.

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Mr. Oeming's love of animals also led him to become a fixture on Canadian screens with his documentaries In the Land of the Black Bear, Wild Splendor, National Geographic special Journey to the High Arctic and the 1980 CBC miniseries Al Oeming: Man of the North. He toured North America and New Zealand for film screenings and to advocate for wildlife. Tawana, his beloved cheetah, was almost always by his side. Tawana was there when Mr. Oeming appeared on The Tonight Show, and he was there when Tawana starred in Disney's Cheetah.

The constant touring was taxing, however. Moody and irascible, Mr. Oeming would return home and make rounds from pen to pen, noting every keeper's error, and then notoriously mass fire the blunderers. When he would return to the road, Ms. Oeming would hire them all back.

Those who understood him loved being in his presence. Keith Hart, Stu's son, recalls the breadth of Canadian history he would relay like a storybook. For others, though, Mr. Oeming was a tough taskmaster. He was frugal about everything but his passion, which took a toll on his marriage. He and his first wife separated after he spent a large sum on a polar bear compound.

Without her, "the glue that held it together," according to Todd Oeming, the spirit of the game farm declined. Mr. Oeming sold the exotic animals, keeping only the cold-climate creatures and in 1982 rebranded the facility Polar Park.

By the 1990s, Polar Park had lost its lustre as animal-rights groups increasingly targeted zoos. Mr. 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 Edmonton city council for running an inhumane zoo, now ran a facility that had drawn criticism from another generation of activists. Polar Park closed in 1998.

The dismantling was hard on him. But by then he was well into his 70s and ready to retire. He became an auctioneer of horse carriages and accessories, and ran his new business on the former game farm.

Mr. Oeming never left the property. Active and sharp as ever, he tended the 900-acre farm with his bulldozer – clearing trails around the empty, rusted gorilla cages, paint-chipped bear compound and the faded, torn Polar Park welcome sign – until his last days in March.

He leaves his sons Todd and Eric Oeming from his marriage to his late first wife, and children Lorelei von Heymann and Thelon Oeming from his marriage to former second wife Gina Mrklas. Grandchildren Bethany May Oeming and Robert Oeming won't soon forget his candour and character, but baby Minka von Heymann will have to learn about him the way so many Canadians did, through the films, literature and legends he left behind.

"He's bigger than life," says Todd Oeming, who has been planning for several years to redevelop the farm into an eco-resort and wildlife sanctuary called Wild Splendor. Though Mr. Oeming didn't live to see the project completed, he requested his ashes be sprinkled in the forest bog on his land so that his remains will enter the root systems and live in the tree canopy forever.

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