They fought a zoo — Ontario towns grapple with exotic animal owner
Lack of provincial, federal laws mean owners with animals like lions, tigers keep municipalities on their toes
Roy Mitchell remembers the moment he learned his rural Ontario community had acquired a new resident.
A rumour was spreading through the tiny town of Maynooth in the fall of 2020. Someone had just bought out all the chicken at the local No Frills, one of the area's only major grocery stores.
Mitchell recalled hearing that the man said, "These are for my kitties."
But the "kitties" he was referring to were not house cats.
"He brought his tiger to the parking lot, or a lion or something," Mitchell said. "And people were telling me, 'Did you hear about the guy … he's going to start a zoo.' "
Mitchell, an artist who had moved from Toronto a few years earlier, was gobsmacked. "It was like … what? Can you start a zoo?"
The man was Mark Drysdale, an exotic animal owner who had recently purchased land in Maynooth, located in the municipality of Hastings Highlands about 265 kilometres northeast of Toronto.
He wanted to open a roadside zoo with his collection of animals, including 10 big cats: eight lions and two tigers. He also had lemurs.
Mitchell immediately feared the worst: "Lion escape. Tiger escape. Lemur, not so bad. I wouldn't care about a lemur, but maybe they're dangerous, I have no idea."
Drysdale's plan for Highland Big Cat Adventures would be his third such endeavour in less than a decade. It would also ignite the latest in a series of bitter battles with Ontario municipalities over exotic animal bylaws.
A dilemma for municipalities
Drysdale's efforts have exposed a serious dilemma for municipal officials: How to keep fearful residents safe while navigating an individual's right to keep wild animals.
Ontario has no laws governing who can own exotic animals. Instead, it's up to municipalities to enact bylaws to prohibit specific species.
Animal rights advocates say this has resulted in a patchwork of laws that can often fail to protect animals against mistreatment.
At first, none of the towns Drysdale moved to had a bylaw. But at the behest of concerned residents, one after another, the communities enacted bans on exotic animals.
"It's been hell," Drysdale said. "It starts with townships, and then there's a group that call themselves Zoocheck."
Drysdale reserves special animosity for Zoocheck, which he accuses of stirring up fear in each of the municipalities where he's lived.
Julie Woodyer, campaigns director for Zoocheck Canada, said the organization's purpose is to protect wild animals and has been following the controversies around Drysdale's facilities for years.
He first came to the group's attention in 2014 when he and his first wife, Joni Cook, were operating Ringtail Ranch and Rescue, a zoo in Wainfleet, Ont., in the Niagara region.
Between 2013 and 2018, Wainfleet officials documented 17 instances of biting and scratching at the zoo.
The Niagara Region Public Health reports, obtained by Zoocheck Canada via access to information requests, referenced a range of animals, including a donkey, a type of South American raccoon, a lynx and marmosets. In one instance, a local politician was ambushed by a lemur named Lawson. On another occasion, Drysdale was bitten on both forearms by his lion.
Wainfleet enacted an exotic animal bylaw in 2018. That was the same year that Ringtail was shut down after being declared a health hazard.
Soon after, Drysdale moved to Grand Bend, Ont., a tourist town on the southeastern shores of Lake Huron.
It would become the site of perhaps his mightiest battle.
From Beethoven to big cats
Growing up in Brampton, Ont., Drysdale was the kid who always brought home strays.
"It was probably the neighbour's cat, but I brought it home anyway, pretending it was a stray," he said, adding he's always been more comfortable around animals than people.
In the '90s, he and Joni started taking in unwanted St. Bernards when sales of the breed spiked following the release of Beethoven, a comedy starring the same kind of dog.
Drysdale said as soon as people heard they took in rescues, he began getting calls about unwanted exotic animals, and their collection grew.
"You've got people who buy monkeys. You got people who buy lemurs. You got people who smuggle something across the border. You've got X animal and they don't want it anymore."
It was in Wainfleet that Drysdale began acquiring big cats.
Online, there are pictures and videos galore of Drysdale and his animals — one video shows him playing fetch with a lion named Savannah behind his Wainfleet property.
WATCH | Mark Drysdale and Savannah the lion in Wainfleet:
"So, that is a cat that is absolutely loose," Drysdale told CBC, noting he would be "crucified" for admitting that's how he walked his lions on his property.
But he said the cats stay by his side because "the world beyond their cage and beyond me is a world they do not want to know about."
Drysdale insists his animals are bonded to him and that his lions were never a risk to the public.
"In this world, we have tens, if not hundreds of thousands of dog attacks every single year. How many lion attacks do you know of?"
Drysdale may not have been concerned about lion attacks, but it soon became clear his neighbours were.
New life for an old zoo
Through social media scuttlebutt in spring of 2019, Colin Butler learned that someone was looking to revitalize the old Pineridge Zoo in Grand Bend.
The CBC reporter in London, Ont., was immediately intrigued because the former zoo was known for animal escapes.
"People waking up in the morning and finding a warthog in their backyard or something like that, right? So, I thought, 'Oh my God, this thing's coming back.' So, I started looking into it," Butler recalled.
He discovered that it was Drysdale who wanted to open a zoo called Roaring Cat Retreat on the grounds of the old facility, and that his Wainfleet operation had been shut down by health authorities.
Butler said Drysdale told him Roaring Cat Retreat was "going to have these big, big fences, and everything was going to be safe."
When Butler approached the town's mayor for comment, he wasn't aware of Drysdale's plans. "And it didn't sound like he was comfortable with the idea, either."
Butler's coverage of the plan set off a series of public meetings in Lambton Shores, the municipality where Grand Bend is located.
Drysdale said they weren't made aware of those meetings.
Within days of publication of Butler's article, the municipality of Lambton Shores passed an exotic animal bylaw.
The move infuriated Drysdale, who said he didn't get a chance to give his input and was angry the town would "just pass a bylaw that is going to … make the tens of thousands of dollars worth of work that we put into that property irrelevant."
But because he had animals on his land before the bylaw was passed, Drysdale insisted it didn't pertain to him and vowed to fight it in court.
Soon, his Grand Bend operation was accepting visitors, setting the stage for a lawsuit filed by the municipality. Ultimately, Drysdale would be forced to move again.
Court injunction ends roaring
One of the most common complaints levelled at Roaring Cat Retreat was, well, the roaring.
"Are we really at that point in society where a lion roaring would be considered a noise complaint over children screaming?" Drysdale lamented.
"People pay tens of thousands of dollars to go to Africa and actually see a pride of lions roar."
Another grievance arose after two lion cubs were spotted wandering in a residential area. Drysdale said a woman who complained overreacted.
"Unfortunately, some lady was getting mail, and it became a big thing. You know, it's not, 'Baby lions are out.' Oh, no, it's 'Lions are out.' Big difference between a baby lion and a lion." He claimed the lock on their enclosure had been cut.
Ultimately, an Ontario court judge decided in late 2019 that while the property used to be a zoo, Lambton Shores had rezoned it years earlier.
The municipality was granted a permanent injunction against Roaring Cat Retreat, which meant the animals had to be removed from the property.
By June 2020, the roaring in Grand Bend had stopped.
Another move, a lobby begins
Before Drysdale and his second wife, Tammy Nyyssonen, arrived in Maynooth in late 2020, they called to ask the mayor if an exotic animal bylaw existed in Hastings Highlands.
They were told it didn't. Drysdale recorded the call and posted it to social media.
"You know what our former mayor should have done?" asked Mitchell, the Toronto transplant to Maynooth. "He should have googled Drysdale."
Mitchell was astounded that there were no rules preventing owners of large, exotic animals moving "from municipality to municipality to municipality."
He quickly organized a group to lobby Hastings Highlands to pass an exotic animal bylaw, but it would take months to gain any traction.
In July 2021, Ontario Provincial Police visited Drysdale's Maynooth property at the request of Hastings-Prince Edward Public Health Unit to check on the animals as a matter of public safety.
According to officers' notes, obtained by CBC through access to information requests, the lions on the property "killed the tiger and ate it" because the animals were "able to dig a hole under the fence to get between enclosures."
Officers noted there wasn't enough food or water for the big cats and that fruit loops had been left for the lemurs.
A provincial animal welfare officer inspected the next day, and Drysdale and Nyyssonen were subsequently charged with one count each of permitting distress and four counts each of failing to comply with the standards of care laid out in the Provincial Animal Welfare Services Act, known as PAWS.
A spokesperson for the Ontario Ministry of the Solicitor General said the four lions that killed the tiger were "relocated voluntarily by the owners" who were allowed to move them to an unknown location.
Within weeks of the charges, the town council voted unanimously to pass the exotic animal bylaw, and Mitchell's group, Citizens for a Safe and Humane Hastings Highlands, declared victory.
For his part, Drysdale acknowledged his tiger had been killed by lions but was adamant it hadn't been eaten.
He rejected police claims that lions had dug between the enclosures. Instead, he said, the tiger had been left in a common area and managed to get in with the lions.
He also said he was in jail when the tragedy happened.
Drysdale said he and Nyssonnen were driving when they had what he called "an argument," and that he then led police on a car chase.
He was later charged with dangerous operation of a vehicle and assault, pleaded guilty and was convicted.
Though he said he took responsibility for what happened to his tiger, Drysdale also blamed police and described begging officers to take him home so he could move the tiger to a secure enclosure.
"It was like losing a child," Drysdale said of the tiger's death.
A federal bill gains support
Zoocheck's Woodyer is frustrated with the province, which she said has been "promising for years" to bring in captive wildlife regulations, and that nothing has been done to date.
"So essentially, Ontario is like the Wild West when it comes to captive wildlife."
Tom Deline, mayor of Centre Hastings, said his municipality recently updated an animal control bylaw that was introduced in 2001 when a man who owned a cougar moved to the area.
In small communities, Deline said, "people can get very afraid" when it comes to exotic animals and it can sometimes mean taking the fight to court — an expense small towns can ill afford.
"Rather than have every municipality run around and try to do some kind of a protectionist bylaw, I think it would be better if it was either federal or provincial," he said.
The mayor of South Huron told CBC he was grateful that a previous municipal council had enacted an exotic animal bylaw in 2014.
George Finch said he was surprised to learn that such rules were handled at a regional level and would like to see the provincial and federal governments "step up to the plate."
"It's certainly something that should be dealt with beyond the county level. It should be dealt with at a provincial level at a minimum."
A spokesperson for Ontario's Ministry of the Solicitor General, which is responsible for animal welfare in the province, told CBC the regulation of exotic animal ownership currently can be addressed in municipal or regional bylaws.
A PAWS committee was struck about a year ago to advise the minister on issues, "including any future regulations governing the prohibition or restriction of possession or breeding of exotic animals," said the spokesperson.
Rather than have every municipality run around and try to do some kind of a protectionist bylaw, I think it would be better if it was either federal or provincial.- Tom Deline, mayor of Centre Hastings, on exotic animal bylaws
Laws around keeping such animals vary, not only in Ontario, but across the country.
This makes it impossible to even estimate how many animals are kept in captivity in backyards or roadside zoos, according to Kathy Duncan, director of national programs with Humane Canada, a national organization representing SPCAs and humane societies.
"To call it a patchwork across the country would be generous."
Duncan says there's growing federal support to pass the Jane Goodall Act — Bill S-218 introduced in November 2020 — which would make it an offence to keep non-domesticated animals, such as great apes, elephants and tigers.
Hoping the cats come back
Drydale says there's no need for any ban on exotic animals and insists there are good reasons for people like himself to own them, pointing to animal wrangling for film and TV productions and educational purposes.
The PAWS Act is doing what it's meant to, he said, crediting the province for allowing him to relocate his animals rather than seizing them.
"It controlled me when things went south here. They did the right thing," he said. "They made sure that those animals were moved to a safe place."
Drysdale said he plans to bring the animals back to Maynooth as soon as he can.
"In their bylaw, they do have an exception for sanctuaries and people caring for animals," he said. "And I was happy to see that, to be honest with you. It's kind of throwing you a bone."
In fact, the new rules only provide exemptions for shelters run by the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals or the municipality, but individuals can apply on a case by case basis.
That's a decision the municipality would have to make.
With files from Yvette Brend.
The documentary "Of Tigers and Towns" was produced by Joan Webber.