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'This is a witch hunt:' Roaring Cat Retreat owner slams new Grand Bend animal bylaw

Mark Drysdale, who plans to open what he calls an animal sanctuary for large cats in the tourist town of Grand Bend, Ont., calls a sweeping new bylaw banning the ownership of lions and tigers 'a witch hunt' and vows to fight it in court.

Mark Drysdale says his love of looking after animals 'is a constant battle against ignorance'

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

The owner of Roaring Cat Retreat, a proposed private zoo and animal sanctuary in Grand Bend, Ont., vows to fight a sweeping new bylaw banning the ownership of most kinds of exotic animals in the Municipality of Lambton Shores, calling it "a witch hunt." 

Mark Drysdale told CBC News he plans to open Roaring Cat Retreat in June in the lakeside town, which is within the Lambton Shores municipality.

The facility would have at least six lions and four tigers on the former grounds of Pineridge Zoo, a private zoo that operated for 40 years in Grand Bend.

But the Municipality of Lambton Shores moved quickly to pass a sweeping bylaw on Monday night, banning the ownership of an exhaustive list of exotic animals, including lions, tigers, alligators and elephants. 

'This is a witch hunt'

A 1997 edition of a Grand Bend community paper advertises a tiger on the premises of the former Pineridge Zoo. The property's new owners want to create a private zoo and animal sanctuary that could house up to 12 big cats, including four tigers. (Tammy Nyyssonen)

"It's very frustrating. This is a witch hunt," Drysdale said. "I love looking after animals. I've made it my life and it's not an easy life. It's a constant battle against ignorance." 

Drysdale said since town council passed its bylaw on Monday night, he's seen visible hostility from some residents. 

"We've had people pulling up in front of our house and giving us the finger and screaming at us," he said, noting that neither rude behaviour nor the bylaw will dissuade him from building Roaring Cat Retreat. 

Drysdale said he has already been in contact with his lawyer, but believes the bylaw is so flawed that he won't even have to fight it in court. 

"This bylaw will not affect us in any way," he said. "All 10 or 12 cats, whatever I have here now, will remain on the property."

Neighbourhood built when zoo had big cats

An old handbill from the former Pineridge Zoo in Grand Bend advertises a number of large predators, including a lion, leopard and bears. (Tammy Nyyssonen/submitted)

Drysdale argues that since he and his fiancée Tammy Nyyssonen have had possession of the property on Parkview Crescent since April 1, a full 14 days before the township hastily passed its bylaw, the animals on site must be "grandfathered in" under the new rules. 

By no means do we say the public needs to take the risk.- Mark Drysdale

Drysdale further argues that most of the residents in the surrounding neighbourhood moved in when his property housed a number of big cats as the former Pineridge Zoo, including a lion, tiger and a jaguar.

"When all these animals were here was when all those houses went in," he said. "Even though [Pineridge Zoo] was known for escaping animals, that wasn't a problem for them to build their houses and now it's a big concern." 

Drysdale also believes his big cats should be considered domestic animals since he earns his living by loaning lions and tigers to movie studios. 

'It's no different than car racing'

While he admits working with large predators is dangerous, he insists he knows what he's doing. 

"It's no different than car racing, parachuting, or unprotected sex," he said. "You take risks for your passion and enjoyment and sometimes you pay the price, but by no means do we say the public needs to take the risk." 

Drysdale said he plans on spending $500,000 on enclosures for his animals, which he said will be built to the standards of Canada's Accredited Zoos and Aquariums, the closest thing this country has to a zoo regulator. 

Mark Drysdale and Tammy Nyyssonnen explain why Roaring Cat Retreat won't be like the former zoo that once inhabited their property. 1:25

He further pledges to install an electrified fence on the rim of his property and has bought an additional 12-acre plot of land to act as a buffer between his animals and the surrounding neighbourhood. 

Drysdale said much of hostility he has met of late in Grand Bend is nothing new and is reminiscent of the battle he waged for years against local officials in Niagara Region when he owned Ringtail Ranch and Rescue in Wainfleet, Ont. 

Reminiscent of Wainfleet, Ont. 

Wainflett town councillor and acting mayor Terry Gilmore remembers Drysdale well, even though he didn't have too many direct dealings with the man. 

He declined to comment on Drysdale's promise to fight Lambton Shores in court, saying "that's between him and Grand Bend."

Gilmore said Drysdale was happy to work with Wainfleet Township officials to help draft an exotic animal bylaw in order to manage the more than 100 animals he owned at Ringtail Ranch and Rescue in Niagara Region. 

"We just wanted to know about it so if police or first responders have to respond they're not getting jumped by a lion," he said. "I didn't find him to be particularly unreasonable."  

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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