Time and time again, Doug Bos hears how great it would be to run a zoo.
People say, “It must be the best job ever.” It must be easy, fun and a great way to get rich, they think.
But those are common misconceptions about small, privately-run zoos.
“We’ve had so many people who want to do it, but they have to understand it’s a lifelong commitment,” said Bos, owner of Discovery Wildlife Park at Innisfail.
While Bos enjoys looking after animals in need of homes, he also says it’s one of the toughest jobs. There are many critics, no money in it, and little, if no, family vacations. Dedication is paramount.
In the 2011 movie We Bought a Zoo, a widower played by Matt Damon starts life over by buying a large house with a zoo in the back. Several challenges ensue leading up to opening day.
Challenges, as well as controversy, have hit Central Alberta’s two zoos — at Discovery Wildlife Park and Lynn Gustafson’s GuZoo Animal Farm near Three Hills.
Gustafson recently received a new operating permit from the provincial government after a judicial review into the decommissioning of the zoo was dropped.
And Canadian Pacific Railway is now in talks with Discovery Wildlife Park to sign a costly agreement so zoo access for transporting goods across the tracks remains open.
“We have to come to some sort of agreement or they will take it out,” said Bos’s partner and zoo co-owner Debbi Rowland.
As a result, the zoo may have to push up plans to build a road across the creek, but it will cost several hundred thousand dollars. Rowland said they’re not sure how they’re going to pay for it.
Bos and Rowland, both 57, are well versed on the various issues that crop up when running a zoo. There are government regulations from all levels to deal with, plus unexpected costs such as damaged signs. Then there’s opposition from animal activists.
Ali Oop the brown bear was trained to kiss staff and visitors, but then animal activists demanded the zoo stop the practice in 2005. Rowland said they stopped for a week, then resumed after an informal poll showed that zoo visitors thought the bear kiss was just fine.
A lot of people feel they are the experts, said Bos.
“They never spend one day looking after animals and they all know more than us who spend all our time and money and effort. We’re the bad guys and they’re the good guys.”
The couple have had just two vacations since 1989. They cannot afford to build a house because all the money is invested back in the zoo. Their kitchen is the concession area of the main building, with only a microwave and no stove.
During the summer, they hire 15 to 20 people. The rest of the year, two zookeepers are on hand to help. The zoo runs from May to Thanksgiving and then shuts for the season. Normally in winter, the couple dips into a line of credit to keep things running.
Alberta Fish and Wildlife officers drop off orphaned animals, including two bears that have been around for 17 years, but the zoo receives no provincial dollars in return to help care for them.
They run a strong educational component with various programs, plus they promote themselves on Facebook and with their own annual newsletter called Walk on the Wild Side.
Bos believes everyone can do their part in conserving wildlife and the environment by supporting zoos.
“They can help by paying their gate admission and learning about animals, about their plight in the wild,” said Bos. “If every family in Canada could do that, it would make such a difference.”
Bos didn’t make a conscious desire to get into the zoo business. The former electrical mechanic started selling female pot-bellied pigs to make money and they sold really well in Red Deer in the late 1980s. He and Rowland started a zoo near Clive after acquiring a zoo licence in 1992 to buy reindeer.
“There’s a few times we’ve thought that we should just get the hell out of the business,” said Bos, who has run the well-manicured zoo at Innisfail since 2002. “But you can’t. It’s not like any other business. With the animals, you still have to feed them and look after them.”
So what makes them stick it out? All those animals — about 40 species and about 200 animals, ranging from salamanders and snakes to kodiak bears and jaguars — that live on the 90-acre property along Hwy 2A.
“We love our animals,” said Rowland. “And I really think it’s important for children to connect with nature.”
Gustafson, a grandfather of 14 and great-grandfather of seven, said he runs his zoo for the children first and foremost. He also loves seniors, the mentally challenged as well because they will typically be up-front with him.
But for every other visitor who comes, he wonders what their true intentions are for the zoo that’s been running since 1990 near Three Hills. Some will see something they don’t agree with and then run to the authorities.
“It’s stressful,” said Gustafson, seated at the dining room table of the house he shares with his son and daughter-in-law. “If these people really cared about the animals, you wouldn’t mind. They have an agenda and that makes it tough.”
Controversy over conditions have dogged Gustafson’s zoo over the years. Complaints have included dirty cages, empty water dishes, and inadequate shelters.
“We’ve been ridiculed and criticized and then the (government staff) do investigations and inspections,” said Gustafson. “And the final thing in the statement is that all the animals appear to be in good condition and healthy.”
In early 2011, an inspection team from the Canadian Association of Zoos and Aquariums (CAZA), working with provincial officials, found numerous ongoing deficiencies. The problems surfaced after photos were posted on Facebook.
The zoo was ordered closed, but the Gustafson family appealed and a judge allowed the zoo to operate under strict conditions. In mid-October, the province met with the Gustafsons and decided the zoo can stay in business as long as it meets certain conditions. Zoocheck Canada, an animal protection charity, issued a news release saying the facility hasn’t been compliant with zoo standards since 2005.
GuZoo volunteers Sabrina Wowdzia and Shelley Charters, both of Red Deer, come weekly to help clean enclosures and do what else is needed. Sometimes they bring their children as well so they can learn more about wildlife.
“We love the people,” said Wowdzia, who’s been visiting the zoo since she was seven.
“Everyone should come and see it for themselves,” added Charters. “We wanted to make a difference.”
The zoo has 500 to 600 animals that live on the 80-acre fenced property and there are about 40 to 50 species. Gustafson goes through a private broker and, in most cases, he does a trade to get an animal.
Some of the enclosures are as large as a soccer field with tall grasses, while others are much smaller with a floor, like the one for the three lions. The lions came from zoos in Eastern Canada and were all very young.
“That’s all these animals know — they’ve never been running around,” said Gustafson. “Even if it’s a big pen, they wouldn’t utilize it all.”
The Friends of GuZoo Society had about $15,000 in the account to build a spacious lion enclosure. It’s not complete.
“But that’s all gone now,” said Gustafson. “The money we’ve used for legal fees could have been used for something else. It could have been used on the animals.”
Zoo signs, where the lettering is almost invisible now, were supposed to be replaced, but “everything was in limbo” until the permit decision, said Gustafson. The family-run zoo is shut down for the season.
Gustafson’s wife Christine died of cancer seven years ago. They had six children. One of their three sons committed suicide at age 16. Gustafson’s brother was killed in a tractor accident six months later.
“It makes you realize that life is kind of short,” said Gustafson. “It’s not all about money. Do something that you enjoy.”
The former beef and crop farmer said he got into the zoo business because of his children. He started raising rabbits, guinea pigs, goats and sheep in 1970 on the quarter-section. At one time, they had a fur farm that included wolves, coyotes and other similar animals — not for their pelts, but simple enjoyment.
“It’s been all for the kids, ever since we started,” he said.
Gustafson isn’t a big believer in expanding the zoo. There are no plans to increase gate admissions or add more revenue sources.
“This is all that I live for,” said Gustafson. “I get up in the morning and it’s all I want to do.”