Ontario roadside zoos criticized for poor fences

Two animal welfare organizations allege the public may be in danger at half a dozen Ontario roadside zoos because exotic animals are kept behind what the groups maintain are inadequate fences.
The report criticizes roadside zoos for lack of proper fencing. ((Canadian Press) )

Two animal welfare organizations allege the public may be in danger at half a dozen Ontario roadside zoos because exotic animals are kept behind what the groups maintain are inadequate fences.

A report released this week by Zoocheck and the World Society for the Protection of Animals calls for the province to introduce stricter safety standards and licence owners of exotic animals such as lions and jaguars.

In visits to six roadside zoos, the groups came away with concerns that big cats could escape their enclosures, endangering workers and the public, Zoocheck spokesman Rob Laidlaw said Friday.

"The two big problems were the low fence heights for some animals and . . . if people were motivated, they could get close to the animal cages," he said.

Some lions and tigers were kept behind three-metre barriers, but tigers can jump more than four metres if motivated, he added.

The report cited unlocked doors and gates, doors that open outward and no double-door entry systems into cages. Some zoos didn't have perimeter fencing to keep animals on the property, and visitors weren't always supervised, the report added.

Since 1985, more than 50 wild animals escaped from zoos or private collections in Ontario and in some cases, people or animals were attacked, the report said.

Between June and August, Zoocheck and the WSPA visited Elmvale Jungle Zoo near Barrie, Greenview Aviaries Park and Zoo in Ridgetown, Guha's Tiger and Lion Farm in Utterson near Bracebridge, the Killman Zoo in Caledonia, the Northwood Zoo and Animal Sanctuary in Seagrave and Papanack Park Zoo in Wendover.

Spokesmen for the Northwood and Elmvale facilities said the animal welfare groups are trying to get their zoos shut down.

"They've been doing this for years," said Northwood head keeper Tony Vanzuilekom. "But no matter what we do . . . they're always going to find a problem with it because their bottom line is they don't want any places like this to exist."

The other zoos mentioned in the report were contacted by The Canadian Press but did not immediately return phone messages. A Greenview spokesman said he had not yet seen the report and declined to comment.

No animals have escaped from Northwood, which has "locks on everything" and takes liability issues seriously, said Vanzuilekom.

He said his zoo has a three-metre heavy gauge steel wire fence with electrical strands through it.

"Nothing's getting through that," he said.

Elmvale owner Sam Persi said his facility was safe.

He said the only escape happened in 1996 when four tigers got out of their enclosure after vandals broke the lock. Three tigers were returned to their cages but a tiger that attacked a camel was put down, Persi added.

Melissa Matlow of WSPA said most other provinces have a licensing system.

"We just don't have that system in Ontario," she said.

Laidlaw said there's definitely a safety risk.

"That's why we're asking the government to intervene."

Ontario Liberal Dave Levac introduced private member's bill in November that calls for licensing of private ownership of exotic wildlife but no date has been set for second reading.

Levac noted that Ontarians need to licence their cats and dogs.

"Yet we don't licence somebody who's going to have an animal that can kill you in seconds... that doesn't make sense," he said.

Persi and Vanzuilekom both say they support licensing exotic animal ownership.