Neighbours on edge as Ontario beach town braces for arrival of big cat sanctuary

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They only moved in two weeks ago, but everyone in Grand Bend, it seems, is talking about the new neighbours. 

“I’m not worried about it,” said one woman who lives nearby and didn’t want to be identified. “My kids are a little nervous about it though.” 

“Everyone’s got to make a living somewheres,” said another neighbour. “I’m not against it really, but it would have been nice if we had known it was coming.”

“It,” in this case, is Roaring Cat Retreat, a private zoo and animal sanctuary that specializes in big cats, such as lions and tigers. The owners, Mark Drysdale and Tammy Nyyssonnen, are looking to open a facility showcasing the animals in the VanDongen subdivision in the tourist town of Grand Bend, Ont. by June. 

‘Tigers, lions, that’s our specialty’ 

This lion is among a number of big cats owned by Mark Drysdale that are currently scattered on farms and private zoos around the province, but will eventually call Roaring Cat Retreat home. (Roaring Cat Retreat/Facebook)

“It’s going to be a place where cats can come for various reasons have found themselves homeless,” Mark Drysdale said, noting that many of his cats are from movies, or get seized as exotic pets at the Canadian border. 

“We specialize in large cats,” he said. “The tigers, the lions.” 

Drysdale admits he has no formal education when it comes to animals. He started with dogs 27 years ago and eventually worked his way up to big cats.

“They’re just babies,” he said. “They really are. They act like little sucks. That’s not to say they’re not predators. Things do go wrong.”

Lion escaped from Drysdale’s old sanctuary in 2016

An enclosure at the former Pineridge Zoo can be seen on the left. The grounds are being prepared to make way for Roaring Cat Retreat, a private zoo and animal sanctuary set to open in June in Grand Bend, Ont. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

While Drysdale might still have all 10 of his fingers, he hasn’t exactly had a perfect record when it comes to his career of looking after exotic animals. 

He ran Ringtail Ranch and Rescue in Wainfleet, Ont. for 13 years, which was ordered closed to the public by health authorities in 2016 over concerns that bites and scratches could transmit disease. 

Nine months later, a lion named Savannah was found wandering on a rural road not far from the facility in 2017. No one was hurt and Niagara Regional Police at the time said there was no immediate threat to public safety. 

Ringtail Ranch closed in 2018, not long after Wainfleet Township passed an exotic animal bylaw. 

Roaring Cat Retreat ‘a completely different animal’

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

Drysdale’s new operation, Roaring Cat Retreat, will be located on the former grounds of Pineridge Zoo, a private zoo that operated in Grand Bend for 40 years and had a number of escapes, including baboons, peacocks and snakes. 

Drysdale says that, in order to guarantee the safety of the community, he bought an additional 12 acres south of the original 10-acre property to act as a buffer between the animals and the neighbourhood. 

The property will be equipped with an electrified perimeter fence to prevent escapes and Drysdale pledged to spend $500,000 on enclosures that are “above and beyond” the standard of the closest thing this country has to a national zoo regulator, CAZA, Canada’s Accredited Zoos and Aquariums.

“Our number one priority will be community safety,” he said.

Drysdale plans to hire a staff of 20 from Grand Bend and purchase all his supplies from local businesses in order to feed up to six lions and four tigers. He also plans to hold a community open house at an undetermined venue in order to answer questions and concerns from the public. 

“We will take their concerns seriously and address them,” he said. “It’s up to us to prove to them these things can be run in an ethical way.” 

Mayor ‘looking at what our options are’

Mark Drysdale said he hopes to have up to six lions and four tigers at his new Grand Bend animal sanctuary. (Roaring Cat Retreat/Facebook)

The couple might have their work cut out for them. 

“I’ve had a lot of calls,” Lambton Shores Mayor Bill Weber told CBC News. “People are quite concerned about the safety aspect of large cats in a residential area.” 

Weber said that while residents got used to exotic animals wandering the neighbourhood from the former Pineridge Zoo, the facility never kept large predators, such as lions and tigers. 

“It’s the size and scope of it that’s a concern of the neighbours,” he said. “Public safety is our number one concern.” 

While Drysdale claims to have contacted officials from Lambton Shores, the mayor questions that claim. Saying if Drysdale has consulted with township officials, his office doesn’t know about it. 

“We don’t really know what the gentleman has got planned,” Weber said. “He has not reached out to the Municipality of Lambton Shores currently, that I’m aware of.” 

Weber said the township has yet to take a stance on whether it will allow the animal sanctuary to go ahead, saying officials still need more information from Drysdale. 

“We’re looking at what our options are,” he said. “Until we know more about what’s being planned and being applied for, we’re just trying to find out what’s going on.”

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