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South Huron to vote on whether to host big cats on Grand Bend's doorstep

Town councillors in South Huron vote Monday on whether to grant a pair of Sarnia business associates an exemption to the town's exotic animal bylaw, so they can keep two lions on a farm property near the Grand Bend Motorplex.

Critics express anxiety, doubt and disapproval, saying big cats a threat to public safety

Brandon Vanderwel and Destiny Duncan pose with their lions in this undated photo submitted to the Municipality of South Huron. (Brandon Vanderwel & Destiny Duncan/Municipality of South Huron)

South Huron councillors decide Monday whether to grant an exemption to the community's exotic animal bylaw that would allow two work colleagues and friends from Sarnia to keep a pair of lions on a farm property on Grand Bend's doorstep. 

The hotly anticipated vote comes after town hall received dozens of letters from animal protection organizations and residents of nearby communities. While some expressed support for the proposal, most conveyed their anxiety, doubt and disapproval, saying the big cats pose a potential threat to public safety. 

South Huron Mayor George Finch has already stated publicly he will never support the venture, though he leaves it up to individual councillors to vote for what they believe is in the public interest. 

The controversy in South Huron comes after the nearby community of Lambton Shores waged a year-long legal battle over a Grand Bend couple's right to keep up to 10 big cats at a self-styled animal sanctuary in the Ontario beach town, a site that's a mere 10-minute drive from where the Sarnia duo propose to put their cats. 

Pair have no affliation with Roaring Cat Retreat

Destiny Duncan and Brandon Vanderwel were both former volunteers who lent their time to Roaring Cat Retreat, but other than that, the work colleagues and friends said they have no affiliation with the controversial enterprise. 

"We're not the same people," Vanderwel said. "I do think differently."

Vanderwel and Duncan plan to acquire an eight-acre property 10 minutes away from Roaring Cat Retreat, just outside Lambton Shores' town limit, sandwiched between a sky diving school and the Grand Bend Motorplex. 

Once complete, the pair said the property will include ten-foot tall fences, a waterfall and indoor enclosures that are insulated for sound to shield the animals from the whine of airplanes or the thundering engines of race cars next door. 

'This isn't about money'

Vanderwel and Duncan plan to acquire this property at 70114B Grand Bend Line, which is a 10-minute drive from Roaring Cat Retreat in Grand Bend. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

"I'm not doing this for any profit. I have a very successful business. This isn't about money," Vanderwel said.

"We have no intention of running any of business or zoo," Duncan said. "It would basically be a private sanctuary just for the two cats with their wellbeing and health being our first priority."

"The main point is just to give them somewhere safe and secure." 

Vanderwel said he plans to spend about $100,000 on housing the lions outside Grand Bend, on top of buying an eight-acre farm property.  

Vanderwel is the owner of Sarnia-based Elite Property Group, a property management company that deals in rentals, landscaping and snow and junk removal. 

Duncan works for Vanderwel as his operations manager, but outside of work the colleagues are also friends and they first met their big cats, Pride and Joy, last spring.

Honest and open

Pride and Joy are a pair of lions owned by Sarnia business associates Brandon Vanderwel and Destiny Duncan. Vanderwel said he adopted the lions after volunteering at Roaring Cat Retreat. (Brandon Vanderwel & Destiny Duncan/Municipality of South Huron)

Duncan has been spearheading the presentation to council and managing public relations on social media, saying the two friends and work colleagues are looking to be as open and honest as possible. 

However, they would not reveal where or under what circumstances they acquired their animals, saying only the cats were rescued from an undisclosed location.

"We're not going to express that for confidentiality purposes," he said. "They were used for-profit as cubs. We did not buy them from [Roaring Cat Retreat owner] Mark [Drysdale], that has obviously been a hot topic on social media."

In fact, Vandwel and Duncan told CBC News they didn't anticipate the intensity of the public response to their proposal would generate once their 21-plan was made public. 

"I'm going to be completely honest with you, we had no idea that was public," Duncan said of the June 15 South Huron council meeting. "We had no idea it was going to explode." 

The proposal elicited two dozen responses, the vast majority of them negative. Duncan said both she and Vanderwel have shared their phone numbers to answer questions and concerns from councillors. 

"We have to have every single answer prepared for council," she said. 

Critics say proposal has a 'lack of detailed information'

Destiny Duncan and Brandon Vanderwel sit with their pet lions Pride and Joy. (Brandon Vanderwel & Destiny Duncan/Municipality of South Huron)

Except critics disagree. World Animal Protection Canada, a Toronto-based organization, has written a joint letter with ZooCheck Canada in opposition to the proposal. A spokesperson said Friday that the 21-page proposal submitted to South Huron council by Duncan and Vanderwel was too vague. 

"I think there was a lack of detailed information when it came to the construction of the enclosure and emergency protocols," said Michèle Hamers, the wildlife campaign manager for the Toronto-based World Animal Protection, who will be making her agency's case in a virtual meeting with South Huron council on Monday. 

She said while the proposal states that one person would be on the grounds at all times with the lions, it doesn't go far enough and doesn't seem to have detailed plans for what would happen should someone be mauled by one of the animals or if there's an escape.

"If something happens you probably want two people or more on the grounds," she said. "Many private big cat owners downplay, overlook or ignore the dangers posed by their animals." 

While it's illegal to own an orca or pitbull in Ontario, there is no regulation governing the ownership of large predator cats such as lions or tigers. 

Hamers said it's unfortunate that it's up to municipalities to decide which animals people can own.

"That's the issue. We don't have provincial regulations that determine what animals we can and cannot keep, so it's up to individual municipalities, which creates a patchwork of regulations and a lot of loopholes for people to keep these very dangerous animals." 

South Huron councillors will vote Monday on whether Duncan and Vanderwel can keep the animals on the property. The colleagues and friends said they're hoping for council's blessing, but wouldn't answer the question of what they would do if they didn't get the bylaw exemption. 

"We'll cross that bridge when we get to it," Vanderwel said. 

About the Author

Colin Butler

Video Journalist

Colin Butler is a veteran CBC reporter who's worked in Moncton, Saint John, Fredericton, Toronto, Kitchener-Waterloo, Hamilton and London, Ont. Email: colin.butler@cbc.ca

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