A second attempt to re-write history came with the effort by three councillors to intervene with staff’s following through on a decision of council a few years ago to relocate the wild animals from Storybook Gardens to more suitable environments as these became available.
Two of the three, Councillors Orser and Polhill, had been on council when these decisions were undertaken in late 2008. Storybook, despite its $7M makeover in 2003, was losing money big-time. At the direction of council, the public was consulted and a number of them worked with the city to bring forward some new ideas which the council supported.
The proposal to relocate the animals was part of that and accordingly, about half of them found new homes over the next few years. The difficulty was with the seals which required an expensive habitat. But, on the initiative of Friends of Captive Animals, and particularly its founder, Vicki Van Linden, who brought Zoocheck and the city together, an exciting offer was made whereby the four harbour seals living in a small cement pool in Storybook could be transferred to a state of the art $18M facility at no cost to the city.
The report was, in fact, a courtesy report by staff. It was a good news story following up on council’s decision. No specific report had been made about previous transferrals—beavers, snakes, porcupines, skunks—because they had not been on display, only used for educational purposes. Few would miss them. The seals were something else. People enjoy watching them at feeding time and have sentimental ties to the story of Slippery from the early days of Storybook in the 50’s and 60’s.
Community Services Committee chair Matt Brown reviewed the history for the benefit of council. The report simply advised council of the arrangements that had been achieved.
Armstrong was quick to support the plan. Some of his constituents had let him know that they had been avoiding Storybook because the state of the animals upset them. He was pleased that they would have better accommodation. Then it was Dale Henderson’s turn.
Although he had had the report for more than a week, it is doubtful that he had read it, nor that he had taken in the answers to his questions and suggestions when he raised them at the Community Services Committee of which he is a member.
He was “getting excited about Slippery”, he said, and it was clear that he was, although Slippery has been dead for 45 years. His words tumbled out in random sequence, but the message was clear. Storybook Gardens was a major tourist attraction; without the seals, the park would be dead, and all the money spent on renovating it, down the drain.
“How much does a seal cost?” he demanded of staff.
Since a seal hadn’t been purchased within anyone’s memory, no answer was forthcoming. He wanted to hold onto the seal for the summer season, having missed the fact that this was a time-sensitive offer to coincide with the re-opening of the St. Louis Zoo. Apparently oblivious to the concern of the living conditions of the seals rather than their physical condition, he thought there should be a veterinarian’s report attesting to the condition of the seals. If they checked out okay with the vet, then. hey, no problem. Keep them in the tank. And maybe the city could find a private investor; had that been checked out?
That option had been explored, he was informed, but there had been no interest expressed by the private sector.
Just as well; private zoos don’t have an excellent reputation, especially in Ontario.
Nonetheless, he moved that the matter be referred back to staff to get a veterinarian’s assessment and explore the option of privatization. His motion was quickly seconded by Councillor Steve Orser.
Councillor Bud Polhill felt caught in the middle. He loves animals, and wants the best for them. “Is there a timeline?” he wanted to know. He didn’t want his grandchildren to “lose out on the opportunity to see these exotic animals.”
"They're not an exotic animal," muttered an animal welfare activist in the gallery.
Director of Community Services Ross Fair pointed out that the clock was ticking. The report had been clear that the St. Louis opportunity coincided with its grand opening in May. As for the concern that removing the animals would spell the death knell for Storybook, Fair urged him to look at the numbers and the trends for Storybook.
But Polhill continued to worry that “We’re going to really regret it.”
Nancy Branscombe is not only a councillor but the mother of three youngsters. Her kids don’t want to see animals in stressful conditions, she said. They could see animals in their native habitat electronically. “This isn’t a hasty decision,” she countered. Staff had just been waiting for opportunities and this was a golden one. Already half of the animals had been transferred, as members should know if they had read the report. She wasn’t proud of the accommodations and didn’t want to put another million dollars into substandard accommodations. This was the best decision for Storybook and the animals.
"Is the zoo accredited?" Councillor Paul Hubert wanted to know. It’s not of course. The zoo could not meet current standards for animals in captivity.
“Staff is doing the best they can with what they’ve got,” he believed, but that was inadequate for this time in history. There had been substantial consultation with the public and related organizations. At one time council had even speculated about shutting the whole thing down. But now there was a business plan that had been adopted by council. And there were measurables (this in deference to Henderson’s preoccupation) in that plan. He wasn’t about to support a referral.
Orser likes to go for the shock effect in debate, and he did so now. Watching animals on television was all fine and dandy but “Try to get a kid to throw a fish at the TV,” he sneered. He thought trying to provide a suitable habitat was worth a shot. Staff should investigate obtaining private investment.
Matt Brown summed it up. It was a time sensitive opportunity; if it was held up tonight, four seals would lose out on that opportunity. There would be no other offer like this.
And then the clincher: “Are you prepared to make a multi-million dollar [addition to the budget]? he asked, referring to the costs of enclosure upgrades.
The referral lost resoundingly with only Polhill, Orser and Henderson voting in favour. Thereafter, even Orser joined in support of the staff report, leaving Polhill and Henderson opposed. Already, it was almost 6:30 and little of the agenda had been dealt with.
In the word of Ross Fair, the clock was ticking.