City plan would see exotic animals return to Little Ray's

Five months after staff at Little Ray’s Reptile Zoo moved out around 30 of its animal residents that were banned under city bylaws, councillors will examine a proposal that would see many of the critters return home.

Hamilton zoo had to move out dozens of critters currently banned under city bylaws

Steve Featherstone, owner of Little Ray's Reptile Zoo on Barton Street East, hopes the city will amend its responsible pet ownership bylaw to let him keep otherwise banned pythons and crocodiles. The centre is educational, he said, and takes banned reptiles off the city's hands. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

Five months after staff at Little Ray’s Reptile Zoo moved out around 30 of its animal residents that are banned under city bylaws, councillors are set to examine a proposal that would see many of the critters return home.

In a report that’s set to go in front of council’s planning committee on Tuesday, staff have recommended that the city amend its responsible animal ownership bylaw to allow some businesses to keep previously banned exotic animals for educational purposes.

Steve Featherstone, owner of Little Ray’s, is hopeful that councillors will vote to approve the amendments and end a “10 or 11-month process” that started in June, when the indoor reptile zoo at 869 Barton St. E opened its doors.

After the headline-grabbing tragedy last summer the saw an African rock python escape from a New Brunswick pet store and kill two boys who were asleep in an upstairs apartment, Hamilton enforcement officers told Little Ray’s management that they couldn’t keep a number of their animals. 

Despite Featherstone’s pleas to keep the creatures, he was forced to move about 30 of them to other facilities, including the original Little Ray’s location in Ottawa.

In total, around 10 arachnids, 11 crocodilians, eight snakes and one lizard had to leave the Hamilton zoo.

New rules

In response to Little Ray's' situation, councillors voted in the fall to ask staff to look into amending the city’s animal ownership rules to see if exemptions could be made.

The new staff report recommends that organizations looking to house certain exotic animals for educational purposes may be exempted from some of the bans, so long as they satisfy several conditions. Some of those include:

  • Pet stores won’t be allowed to keep, let alone sell, exotic animals such as crocodiles and some types of pythons
  • Businesses that share a heating, cooling or ventilation system with a neighbouring tenant may not keep banned exotic animals
  • To qualify for the exemptions, a facility must be certified with Canada’s Accreditation Zoos and Aquariums (CAZA), which sets health and safety standards for commercial animal enclosures across the country

Featherstone, who is scheduled to speak at Tuesday's planning committee meeting, said Little Ray’s has applied for CAZA accreditation and hopes for the business to be certified by the fall.

If Little Ray’s is granted permission to bring back the animals, not all of them will return, he said. 

Eighty-five per cent of the wildlife that Little Ray’s houses come from animals control agencies as well as pet owners who can't take care of the beasts. The business, said Featherstone, likes to rotate the creatures it puts on display, so some of the animals who were forced out will be going to other organizations. 

“There’s a few that I’ve taken care of for at least 18 years,” he noted. “Those individuals will definitely be coming.”

'Attendance has faltered'

Though Featherstone wouldn’t go into details, he said the ordeal has cut into the zoo’s bottom line.

“Attendance has faltered for us,” he said. “It’s definitely slower than it was.”

He said people have told him they were surprised to find out Little Ray’s was still open, and that media coverage led them to believe the city had shut down the zoo.

“Almost everyone that was coming in said, ‘I didn’t know that you were still here. I read in the paper that you were closed.’ "