Private reptile zoo Reptilia wants to come to London; not everyone is happy about it

A privately-run reptile zoo with locations in Vaughan and Whitby has plans for a London location, a move raising concerns from an animal welfare advocate.

City report recommends changes to business licence bylaw that would allow staff to regulate private zoos

A private zoo, Reptilia currently operates locations in Vaughan and Whitby and plans to come to London's Westmount Mall next year. (Cheryl Sheridan/Reptilia)

A privately-run reptile zoo with locations in Vaughan and Whitby has plans for a London location, a move raising concerns from an animal welfare advocate who says it's a business that promotes the ownership of exotic animals that are difficult to keep humanely. 

Reptilia wants to set up a 25,000 square foot zoo at Westmount Mall, which is currently in the midst of an extensive revitalization plan expected to start in earnest next year. The company also has plans for a Barrie location.

Reptilia currently operates its 25,000 square foot flagship location in Vaughan north of Toronto. Visitors pay up to $16 to get up close and personal with a collection of 250 reptiles, including snakes, turtles and alligators. The zoo also offers guided tours, education programs and hosts school trips.

Another part of Reptilia's business involves bringing the animals outside their facilities for birthday parties, youth camps and private events. 

Wendy Brown chairs London's Animal Welfare Advisory Committee and doesn't want to see a Reptilia location in London. 

Her concerns are wide-ranging. She says the animal enclosures are too small and that most staff aren't all experts in animal husbandry. She's also worried that humans handling snakes and other animals could spread dangerous bacteria.

But her biggest concern is what she sees as a part of Reptilia's business model that promotes the private ownership of reptiles, animals she says can be difficult to care for. 

"It perpetuates the view that these are novelty animals to have," she said. "Reptilia promotes the sale of these animals. They're seen as something that's a novelty. Then, when the novelty wears off, then the burden goes to rescue organizations."

To support her claims, Brown points to the fact Reptilia stores sell tanks, food and other paraphernalia for reptiles. 

"People own these animals but when the novelty wears off, the burden goes to rescue organizations," she said. 

Company says they promote responsible pet ownership 

Cheryl Sheridan is Reptilia head zoo keeper at the Vaughan location. 

She denies the company promotes cavalier attitudes about what's involved with owning snakes, turtles or lizards. Instead, she says educating the public about pet ownership plays a big part of their program. 

"We are letting people know about the difficulty of keeping certain species of pets," she said. "We have the means to meet their needs."

Sheridan says 75 per cent of Reptilia's animals are rescued or surrendered from previous owners. The rest are born in their locations or come from accredited facilities. Reptilia does not sell animals.

She says Reptilia's animals are not a health threat because the public has no access to venomous animals and steps are taken to ensure that people who handle the animals aren't exposed to disease and bacteria. ​

Sheridan also said letting guests — kids in particular — see the animals up close allows them to develop a love and respect for reptiles, often sparking in the process an interest in conservation. 

City staff are looking into it

The debate over Reptilia is more than a war of words between the company and local animal welfare advocates. 

Brown wants staff to change London's animal control bylaw in a way that would effectively block private zoos, including Reptilia, from operating in London. 

The item is set to come before Monday's meeting of the city's Community and Protective Services Committee. A staff report coming before the committee however doesn't back the bylaw changes Brown is calling for. Instead, it recommends staff draft changes to the city's business licence bylaw in a way that would allow the city to regulate private zoos like Reptilia. 

Brown maintains that city staff lack the expertise to provide oversight over an operation like Reptilia. 

Sheridan says Reptilia is happy to work with the city on business licence regulations.

"Following certain regulations isn't something we're worried about because that's the model that we've set for ourselves already," she said. 

Below is the staff report, which outlines the concerns of the Animal Welfare Advisory Committee.

Also attached is a document of intent from Reptilia, which responds to health and safety concerns raised about their operation at a committee meeting earlier this year. 

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