Citizen’s group calls for exotic animal laws in Ontario amid lion breeding controversy


A citizen’s group in the Municipality of Hastings Highlands is calling on the provincial government to create legislation governing the ownership of exotic animals after a controversial roadside zoo began breeding lions in their community. 

Mark and Tammy Drysdale moved their exotic animals to a property in Maynooth, Ont., a small town north of Bancroft, after an Ontario judge ruled that the collection, which included 10 big cats, couldn’t stay in a residential neighbourhood in the Ontario beach town of Grand Bend. 

When the Drysdales left Grand Bend, it marked the end of a bitter 18-month battle between the couple and the local council over the right to house and publicly display exotic animals in a residential neighbourhood.

At the time, animal rights advocates predicted that without provincial legislation governing the ownership of such animals, the couple would just move on to another community without rules. 

Lion breeding in Hastings Highlands

Now a citizen’s group based in Maynooth called Citizens for a Safe and Humane Hastings Highlands is calling on the province to create rules around the ownership and breeding of potentially dangerous animals in order to protect smaller communities that may not have the resources, or the will, to get it done on their own. 

A lion cub wanders a property near Maynooth, Ontario. Joshua James says the Drysdales brought the lion with them when they went to tour their new property in the township. (Submitted by Joshua James)

“The way to save all of our municipalities from having to struggle, to deal with legal fees, to deal with being sideswiped by these businesses being set up is to have provincial legislation,” Roy Mitchell, a member of the group told CBC News Friday.  

Ontario is the only province in Canada without legislation governing the ownership of exotic animals, such as lions, tigers, apes and venomous reptiles.

Instead, it’s up to individual communities to come up with their own bylaws, resulting in an inconsistent and uneven patchwork of policies governing the breeding and ownership of potentially dangerous animals that are capable of killing human beings or carrying potentially deadly zoonotic diseases. 

“It’s irresponsible on the part of the government to delegate it to the municipalities,” ZooCheck Canada’s Rob Laidlaw, who’s been calling for provincial legislation for decades, told CBC News Friday. 

Laidlaw said it’s especially clear now that social media posts from the Drysdales indicate the couple has started breeding lions at their facility in Maynooth, called Highland Big Cat Adventures.

The couple announced earlier this month on social media that one of their lions had given birth to three cubs. 

Critics say cubs shouldn’t be removed from their mothers

Neither Mark nor Tammy Drysdale responded to a CBC News request for comment Friday. 

Mark Drysdale nuzzles the head of one of his 10 big cats in this undated photo taken from social media. (Roaring Cat Retreat/Facebook)

According to social media posts from the couple, the cubs quickly ran into problems feeding from their mother and Drysdale began to bottle feed the infant cats. In a social media post that has since been taken down, he wrote that he had never bottle fed a lion before and sat up all night trying to get one of the cubs to eat.

He also publicly pleaded with followers to lend him a generator after his went on the fritz, writing, “My generator is toast. Please I will even rent it till I can get one. Can’t boil water to make formula. I only have 24 hours to get them feeding.”

Laidlaw said while he doesn’t know exactly what’s going on behind the scenes with the cubs, removing them from their mother at such an early age is less than ideal. 

“We do know that they were removed very quickly from their mother,” said Rob Laidlaw with ZooCheck Canada. “Ideally you would want cubs to remain with their mothers.” 

“There are antibodies in the mother’s milk.” 

Laidlaw said leaving animals with their mothers is essential for their psychological and social development, especially when it comes to learning their natural behaviours. 

“That learning curve would affect the animal and it could be detrimental down the road.” 

Laidlaw said he doesn’t know why the Drysdales have begun breeding lions, but at other roadside zoos the cubs are often bred for the sole purpose using them in photo shoots or cub-petting in order to generate revenue. 

“There’s no reason for breeding.” 

Ontario does not regulate breeding of exotic animals

Laidlaw and Mitchell both argue that without proper laws on breeding or ownership, Ontario now has a reputation as a jurisdiction with lax laws when it comes to exotics, which could encourage others to set up shop in the province. 

“It will only get worse because we’re going to get reputation as a province that does this. So without provincial legislation this is going to continue,” Mitchell said.  

Ontario’s Ministry of the Solicitor General, which is responsible for animal welfare in the province, told CBC News Friday in an email that the Ford government “put in place a new animal welfare system that is more robust, transparent, and accountable to protect animals.”

Press secretary Stephen Warner said while the PAWS Act sets standards for enclosures for captive wildlife, it does not regulate the possession or breeding of certain animals.

“Any future prohibitions or restrictions on possessing or breeding of certain animals would be developed in future regulations in consultation with the PAWS Advisory Table and other stakeholders as appropriate,” he wrote.

Another big cat owner has bought property in Maynooth

Mitchell said he believes the Drysdales aren’t the only big cat owners in town and that another big cat owner who tried and failed to house a pair of lions on Grand Bend’s doorstep followed suit. 

Destiny Duncan and Brandon Vanderwel sit with their pet lions Pride and Joy. (Brandon Vanderwel & Destiny Duncan/Municipality of South Huron)

According to provincial land transfer documents obtained by CBC News, Brandon Vanderwel, the CEO of Sarnia, Ont.,-based Elite Property Group, purchased a property just down the road from the Drysdales in Maynooth. 

Last summer, Vanderwel and his business partner Destiny Duncan sought a bylaw exemption to set up a private enclosure for their two lions, named Pride and Joy, in South Huron. In the end, council took no action on Duncan and Vanderwel’s request to amend the bylaw.

Vandwel did not return a request to discuss the purchase or his plans for the property from CBC News Friday.

There is also no evidence to suggest he moved the pet lions that stirred up controversy in southwestern Ontario to the community of Hastings Highlands. 

Since the Drysdales arrived with their animals last summer, a number of neighbouring communities in the Maynooth area have passed their own exotic animal bylaws, based on a template created by the county.

So far the local council of Hastings Highland has yet to pass its own, saying the legislation is still being drafted. 

CBC News reached out to Acting Mayor Tracy Hagar and while she initially agreed to answer questions by email Friday, she did not return the answers by publication time. 

Read more at CBC.ca