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New bylaw makes it illegal to own a lion in Grand Bend, Ont.

Town councillors passed a sweeping exotic animal bylaw on Monday night, making it illegal to own lions and tigers only a few days after a couple announced plans to open a private zoo and animal sanctuary inside a residential area of Grand Bend, Ont.

New exotic animal bylaw bans ownership of big cats, wolves, bats, monkeys and all venomous animals

The Municipality of Lambton Shores has banned the ownership of lions with a sweeping bylaw that was passed only a few days after plans were announced for a private zoo with up to 10 big cats in the tourist town of Grand Bend, Ont. (Roaring Cat Retreat/Facebook)

Town councillors passed a sweeping exotic animal bylaw on Monday night, making it illegal to own lions and tigers only a few days after a couple announced plans to open a private zoo and animal sanctuary inside a residential area of Grand Bend, Ont. 

Roaring Cat Retreat, a private zoo and animal sanctuary that specializes in big cats, is preparing to open in June. 

The owners, Mark Drysdale and Tammy Nyyssonen, bought the former grounds of Pineridge Zoo, a private facility that operated in Grand Bend for 40 years. 

Neighbours in the subdivision recently learned of the couple's plans and raised concerns about public safety. 

'Tremendous amount of feedback from the public'

Bill Weber is the mayor of the Municipality of Lambton Shores. (Bill Weber/Twitter)

"We had a tremendous amount of feedback from the public and fear for their safety in the area," said Lambton Shores mayor Bill Weber Tuesday.

The new bylaw bans the ownership of a wide range of exotic animals, including big cats, such as lions and tigers, primates, bears, elephants, alligators, crocodiles, any snake over three metres in length and all types of venomous animals and spiders. 

Weber said the reason town council moved so quickly was in part because of public feedback, but also because of concerns levied by residents over Drysdale's past operation, Ringtail Ranch and Rescue. 

"You can Google and find out anything," he said. "That's what prompted us to take these concerns seriously. Council acted very responsively. Going forward, we have the tools in place to provide public safety." 

17 animal bites over 5 years

Tammy Nyyssonen and Mark Drysdale are the couple behind the Roaring Cat Retreat, an animal sanctuary and private zoo that plans to open this summer in Grand Bend, Ont. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

Drysdale's proposal for Roaring Cat Retreat in Grand Bend, Ont., comes less than a year after his previous operation, Ringtail Ranch and Rescue, closed its doors.

Drysdale once operated the facility in Wainfleet, Ont. with his ex-wife Joni Cook. Drysdale said the couple parted ways after years of pressure by town officials, public health authorities and law enforcement to close the facility. 

"We just couldn't put up with it," Drysdale said. "They did everything they could to block us and then it just became not worth it." 

Drysdale said at one point, police even showed up at his property armed with carbines after someone falsely reported he had improperly castrated a bull. 

"You wouldn't believe what we've been through," he said. 

Niagara Region health authorities ordered Ringtail Ranch closed to the public in 2016 after a number of reports of animal bites at the facility.

Under provincial law, any time a human being is bitten by an animal, it must be reported to local health authorities, so they can investigate the possibility of rabies transmission. 

Peter Jekel, who is the manager of vector borne diseases with Niagara Region Public Health, said Ringtail Ranch and Rescue had 17 reports of animal bites between 2013 and 2018. 

Girl attacked by lynx through cage

A lynx, seen here in this file photo, was responsible for an attack on a child at Ringtail Ranch. Media reports say the girl was left with a suspected concussion. (David Zalubowski/Associated Press)

"For us, that's a lot of bites to be investigating," he said, noting that in each case, the exotic animal must be confined in a laboratory setting for observation to see if it exhibits visible signs of rabies.

If the animal survives, Jekel said, the animal is then returned to its owner. 

Among the list of animals that bit humans at Ringtail Ranch and Rescue are monkeys, foxes, horses, a lynx, a lion, a lemur, donkeys and a coati, a type of South American raccoon. 

In the case of the lynx, media reports at the time said the girl suffered a suspected concussion after she was attacked through the cage by the big cat. 

Drysdale said the girl was dropped off by her parents at his Wainfleet facility without informing him she was unsupervised. 

"The girl went up to the lynx cage and pulled so hard she pulled the nails out," he said. "So the lynx scratched her." 

Illegal to own pit bulls, but not lions or tigers

This lion is among a number of big cats owned by Mark Drysdale that are currently scattered on farms and private zoos around the province, but will eventually call Roaring Cat Retreat home. (Roaring Cat Retreat/Facebook)

Even after public health ordered a ban on public animal exhibitions at Ringtail Ranch in 2016, the bites continued.

Jekel said that volunteers who worked for Drysdale were being bitten by the animals on his property right up until 2018, the same year Ringtail Ranch and Rescue closed.

Jekel said Ontario has no regulations when it comes to exotic animals, especially when it comes to public health. 

"One of the difficulties with these animals is there is no registered rabies vaccine," he said. "So that's another bit of concern when these animals do start biting." 

Jekel notes that at no point was Drysdale ever fined by health authorities for non-compliance with the law. 

"No matter how small the scratch was, we would report it," Drysdale said. "These are people's lives." 

No public safety standards

Despite the fact there are more than 40 private zoos in Ontario, there are almost no provincial laws governing safety, training or the ownership of exotic animals. (Elmvale Jungle Zoo)

Critics however argue Ontario's animal laws are too weak. While it's illegal to own a pit bull, there are no laws governing the ownership of dangerous predators such as lions, tigers and spitting cobras, nor are there any legal standards for training or the facilities used to house such animals.  

Rob Laidlaw is the executive director of Zoocheck Canada. (Rob Laidlaw/Twitter)

This shows how problematic it is in Ontario," said Rob Laidlaw, the executive director of Zoocheck Canada, an agency that advocates for wildlife in captivity. 

"Most people don't know this, but there are no public safety standards for these types of facilities."

Laidlaw said that Ontario's animal laws are so weak, Drysdale was able to simply move from Wainfleet to Grand Bend, where he was able to start setting up a similar operation, no questions asked.  

"That shouldn't be allowed to happen. We need some kind of up-front licensing to make sure that this sort of bumping around of the problem from one municipality to another doesn't occur in the future," he 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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