Little Ray's may close Hamilton and Ottawa rescue zoos by June and relocate 900 animals

After borrowing almost $1 million during the COVID-19 pandemic, the owner of Little Ray's Nature Centres says it may have to close both of its rescue zoos in Hamilton and Ottawa and relocate roughly 900 exotic animals if COVID-19 restrictions remain in place by summer time.

Founder and CEO says company has taken out almost $1 million in government loans

Little Ray's Nature Centre zoos in Ottawa and Hamilton may close by June if they can't be fully operational, according to the company's founder and CEO.

After borrowing almost $1 million during the COVID-19 pandemic, the owner of Little Ray's Nature Centres says it may have to close both of its rescue zoos in Hamilton and Ottawa and relocate roughly 900 exotic animals if COVID-19 restrictions remain in place by summer time.

"There is a very real risk that one or both of our facilities will not make it past June," said Paul "Little Ray" Goulet, the company's founder and CEO.

"Our landlord has been advised that it is highly unlikely we can continue past June. Our staff are aware of that as well."

The business has fallen prey to the pandemic and the necessary restrictions to stop the virus from infecting more people — but unlike most others, Little Ray's has to worry about all of the animals it cares for and Goulet says closing could create a gap in how Ontario manages the animals they rescue.

"We have been the backstop for the province of Ontario ... we have animals in our building from every single province and territory in our country except for the Northwest Territories," Goulet said.

Paul 'Little Ray' Goulet says he has borrowed nearly $1 million to keep the business afloat. (Paul Goulet/Facebook)

Andrew Morrison a spokesperson for the Ministry of the Solicitor General said Animal Welfare Services is aware of Little Ray's potential closure of its zoos.

"In the event that the facility has to close it would be the responsibility of the owner to ensure appropriate relocation of the animals and compliance with the Standards of Care per the Provincial Animal Services Welfare Act," Morrison said in an email.

Goulet said the business is split into two parts — the side that has animals brought into museums and festivals for educational purposes, and the rescue zoos in Ottawa and Hamilton. Goulet said the government has bundled them into one business and that he has borrowed roughly $910,000 through the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario and Canada Emergency Business Account program.

Both zoos have been unable to operate at full capacity throughout the pandemic and Goulet said it has seen a 95 per cent drop in revenue year over year. They've been unable to take any rescue animals either, which has prevented Goulet and the team from finding more animals safe homes outside of the zoos.

Little Ray's Nature Centres are still open, but can only serve a limited number of people.

The zoos have also only been able to spare seven per cent in expenses during the pandemic. Goulet said the cuts never affected how the animals' care, but said at one point he was roughly two weeks away from not being able to afford to feed them.

Goulet said he's been losing $85,000 a month and may close the zoos it they can't be fully operational by June. That would leave him with just 150 animals for museums and other bookings. The animals in the zoos, he said, would have to be relocated.

"We never opened that to make money, we never thought we would ... it's been a personal mission of mine and my wife to help with large exotic animal rescues in Canada," he said.

Goulet wanted to use the Highly Affected Sectors Credit Availability Program but said there was too much interest to make a loan viable.

He said there is still one way to keep the zoos alive, but it would put the business roughly $2 million in debt because it would require more loans from the government.

Instead, he turned to GoFundMe and a bottle drive to try and raise the money. The GoFundMe has led to $210,795 in donations and the bottle drive has raised $20,000 after roughly 200,000 bottles came in, according to Goulet.

He also shared his frustrations on social media, with a Facebook Live video amassing 322,000 views.

Goulet said he hopes the zoos will be able to remain open. The zoos are open to a limited number of people through private bookings right now and are still interactive.

"Maybe I was wasting my money ... but it's been very difficult after 26 years to see all of [this] ... it personally has felt like our greatest achievement."


Bobby Hristova is a journalist with CBC Hamilton. He reports on all issues, but has a knack for stories that hold people accountable, stories that focus on social issues and investigative journalism. He previously worked for the National Post and CityNews in Toronto. You can contact him at bobby.hristova@cbc.ca.


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