British Columbia

Greater Vancouver Zoo plans major revamp with safari-style park, as concerns remain over animal welfare

General manager Serge Lussier says the zoo plans to move away from small enclosures, and will convert half its space into a safari-style park for animals from across the world. 

Recent report describes lack of space, stimulation in several animal enclosures

A zookeeper feeds a lion at the Greater Vancouver Zoo on March 10. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

The Greater Vancouver Zoo is planning a multi-million dollar revamp of the park and many of its attractions, amid ongoing concern for the welfare of its animals.

General manager Serge Lussier says the zoo plans to move away from small enclosures, and will convert half its space into a safari-style park for animals from across the world. 

"I want this to be a piece of Africa in the heart of B.C.," Lussier told CBC News, pointing toward the area of his proposed savannah at the facility in Langley, B.C. "I'm going to open this up, to have all the land open for African animals."

Lussier says he also wants to renovate several of the remaining enclosures and boost "enrichment" to keep animals from getting bored.

General manager Serge Lussier says he wants to make a zoo that British Columbians can be proud of. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

He said the plan will cost $10-20 million over the next four or five years.

"We will be among the best in the world," said Lussier, who has around four decades of experience in the industry.

Concerns over lack of space

The proposed redevelopment follows years of criticism from advocates over conditions animals are kept in at the facility.

Last year, the wildlife protection non-profit Zoocheck released a report calling on the zoo to make several improvements, suggesting small enclosures and a lack of stimulation could be taking a physical and psychological toll on several species, including raptors, reptiles, amphibians, hippos and giraffes.

The document made reference to key issues and recommendations dating as far back as 1997, saying "the GVZ seems to have made a number of significant, very positive changes… however, some long standing issues remain problematic and should be addressed."

The Vancouver Humane Society, which commissioned the report, said it has attempted to speak with Lussier on several occasions, but has yet to receive a response.

The society voiced caution over Lussier's plans. 

"We need to see exactly what the plan is and see how it's going to be rolled out," said spokesperson Peter Fricker.

"Our concern would be that too much investment might be just to enhance the visitor experience, rather than improve conditions for the animals."

A zookeeper feeds a Siberian tiger at the Greater Vancouver Zoo in Langley, B.C., in early March. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Fricker says the society has encouraged the zoo to transition into a sanctuary for native species, and there are concerns about the general manager's proposed savannah exhibit.

"People need to remember the savannah is a very hot, dry place and B.C. is not a hot, dry place for most of the year," he said.

The Vancouver Humane society has suggested the zoo redesign its animal habitats to promote stimulation. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Breeding debate

The issue of breeding also remains contentious.

The Vancouver Humane Society recommends that the zoo's current roster of exotic animals live out their days and the zoo not replace or breed them.

Lussier, though, says breeding isn't off the table — particularly for endangered species at the facility, like the Siberian tiger.

He says the zoo has applied to the U.S.-based Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which accredits facilities for animal care and welfare, to bring in more of the big cats in hopes of breeding them in future.

A Zoocheck report released last year found 'more could be done to enrich animal spaces to encourage expression of natural movements and behaviours' at the Greater Vancouver Zoo. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Conflict of interest concern

Lussier also serves as head of Canada's Accredited Zoos and Aquariums (CAZA) — a non-profit that spearheads zoo and aquarium accreditation on this side of the border.

That's created some concern over a potential conflict of interest over accrediting the zoo.

Fricker says CAZA is primarily a trade association for zoos.

"It would be better if an independent body were looking at the standards of the zoo and granting it permits on that basis," he said.

One of the Greater Vancouver Zoo's tigers. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

But Lussier insists there's no conflict of interest, as the zoo is already accredited.

"We're good for five years — sometimes there's an interim inspection ... after three years or sometimes after one year," he said.

"If there are any issues I'll be part of the team that will be discussing issues and working toward solutions but I will not — I cannot — be inspecting my own zoo."

Zoocheck's report found that even if improvements were made to the hippopotamus enclosure, B.C.'s climate would remain problematic for the animals. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

With files from Belle Puri

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