One of the first things I noticed when I moved here to Ontario, was that if you drive around the countryside long enough, you will eventually pass a roadside zoo.  They are everywhere!

The “oooh animals!” part of me has been thinking about stopping in at a couple of these places to check them out.  But another part of me is bothered:  Are these places legit? Should I be encouraging mom and pop zoos?

So my original thought was to throw the question out to my readers to see what you all think about these little zoos and animal collections — good or bad?  Give them my money, or don’t?  But a little research has made that decision for me.

If you took the city of Tokyo and turned it upside down and shook it, you would be amazed at the animals that would fall out.  It would pour more than cats and dogs I tell you. Boa constrictors, Komodo dragons, crocodiles, piranhas, ostriches, wolves, lynx, wallabies, manatees, porcupines, orang-utans, wild boar—that’s the sort of rainfall you could expect on your umbrella.   

– The Life of Pi, Yann Martel

That’s Ontario.

You too can have a tiger!


It turns out that here, while it is illegal to own a pit bull, it is perfectly legal to own a tiger, lion, camel, ostrich, chimpanzee, zebra, or any other exotic animal. You don’t need a license or any special training. You don’t have to register your animal and your site does not have to be pre-approved. You don’t need a security system, permission from your neighbors, to be financially secure, or to hold liability insurance. There are also no rules around buying, selling, or breeding these animals, so they are easy to come by – even the large cats and venomous reptiles.

Tomorrow, I could go out and buy a tiger, a cobra, and a baboon and, if my local bylaws didn’t specifically prohibit them (they do), I could keep them in my yard just as long as I adhere to the province’s General Standards of Care.  Of course, this requirement could never be enforced if I don’t have to tell anyone about my new pets.

As a result, today thousands of exotic wild animals live in people’s homes and yards all over Ontario. Mid-size and large wild cats alone comprise between 250 and 500 animals.  (Without a registry, it’s hard to count). These are just the house pets.  In addition, thousands of animals are resident in the more than 60 zoos that are scattered across the province.  Aside from the handful of large “official” zoos, most of these are of the roadside variety – regular folks charging people money to see their exotic animal collection.

Animal protection? Yes, but is it enforced?

The 2009 Provincial Animal Welfare Act (PAW) is reportedly the strongest animal protection law in Canada and was the first significant update to the animal welfare laws since 1919. Among other things, it establishes standards of care for all animals, defines penalties for cruelty and neglect, and authorizes Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (OSPCA) to “inspect places where animals are kept for entertainment, exhibition, boarding, sale or hire, including zoos, pet shops and circuses.”

So with all these animal protection laws, what’s the big deal with roadside zoos? As long as the animals are cared for, why not support them?

First of all, not all the animals are well-cared for. Many of these zoos are run on a shoestring budget. Animals are frequently kept in barren, substandard cages and yards.  The OSPCA has the right to inspect, on demand, any premises where wild animals are kept, but without any type of licensing or registry requirements, they don’t always know about wild pets and small zoos.  Often they have to rely on visitors to report substandard conditions.

Tyson at Lickety Split Ranch

“In May 2007, Lickety Split Ranch (The Zoo) in London [Ontario] closed its doors temporarily and has not yet reopened. The closure occurred because of the massive negative media attention generated after Australian press learned about the treatment of Tyson the kangaroo.”  – Zoocheck Canada

In addition, because these zoos are short on money and caring for some of these animals is exceedingly time consuming, they often close up shop, creating a surplus of captive wild animals.

In other cases, some of the zoos that profess to be “sanctuaries” – -that is refuges for rescued and injured animals, are instead in the business of breeding those animals and marketing them for commercial and entertainment purposes. (See Zoocheck Report 2008: Northwood Zoo and Animal Sanctuary [pdf])

Zoo inspections reveal potential dangers

The Ontario roadside zoo problem has become large enough that it has attracted the attention of Zoocheck Canada and the World SPCA.  Zoocheck has been conducting ongoing reviews of Ontario roadside zoos and “sanctuaries” and has consistently drawn the same conclusions – most roadsides zoos are not healthy for animals or safe for people.

Together the two organization published their most recent findings in Wild Neighbours: The Safety and Security of Ontario’s Wildlife in Captivity Facilities [pdf]  which was based on a 2010 review of wild animal enclosure barriers and other recognized safety measures at six Ontario zoos.

Key Findings:

  1. Poor construction and rudimentary cage and enclosure design;
  2. Low barriers; barriers not secured at ground level
  3. Materials that appear insufficient to properly contain animals;
  4. Damaged barriers, doors and gates and public stand-off barriers;
  5. Lack of secondary containment (shift) areas to safely segregate animals;
  6. Lack of double-door entry systems into the cages and doors that open outward;
  7. Unlocked doors and gates;
  8. Lack of public stand-off barriers to keep visitors back from the enclosures;
  9. Lack of perimeter fencing;
  10. Lack of on-site supervision of zoo visitors.

Animal Escapees

In the last 25 years, more than 50 wild animals have escaped from zoos or homes in Ontario.  While it may seem cute to have a Japanese Macaque, a wallaby, or a Patagonian Cavy ramble through your yard, some escapees are not so welcome.  In 1996, four tigers escaped from Elmvale zoo. Fortunately nobody was injured and the tigers were returned to their cages.  In 2005 a tiger was found wandering the highway after escaping from Papanack Park Zoo in Wendover.  In 2008 a black jaguar escaped from Guha’s Lions & Tigers, killed the family dog, and was shot and killed by OPP. This past year, a wolf escaped from Jungle Cat World in Orono and was shot dead by a local farmer.

Animal attacks – deaths & injuries

And finally (and this is my pet peeve), many exotic animal owners have an exaggerated sense of safety with their own animals. Despite the many cases where wild animals have attacked their owners or visitors, most wildlife owners honestly do not believe their animals will attack them, or anyone else.

Mr. Guha himself does not appear to be well. His vision seemed to be impaired and he was walking with a cane. During the tour his physiotherapist arrived and joined us. Under normal circumstances the health of the zoo operator is not necessarily an issue, but Mr. Guha informed us that he still enters the lion cages. Entering cages housing big cats is a questionable and usually risky practice at the best of times. 

–Zoocheck Canada Ontario Zoo Review Series – #5   Guha’s Tigers & Lions (2008)

It may seem like the now-famous horrific attack on Charla Nash by her friend’s chimpanzee was an freak occurrence, but attacks and maulings by pet exotic animals occurs more frequently than people realize. Many of these attacks happen because the owners and handlers treat the animals as though they are domestic pets.

In January 2010 Norman Buwalda of Southwold, Ontario was killed by his pet Siberian tiger, a 650 lb animal he kept in a barn on his property. This was the second attack by one of Buwalda’s six large cats. A 350 lb animal attacked a 10 year old boy in 2004, injuring him severely.  The boy was taking pictures of the tiger while Buwalda held it on a leash. The tiger lunged and the man was unable to stop it.

In 2008, a lion from Bowmanville Zoo aggressively knocked down a woman during a photo shoot. While the handler maintains that the animal was being playful, the video makes it clear, the man had no control over a 600lb lion on a leash. The animal broke four of the woman’s ribs.

Other videos of Bowmanville zoo include scenes where a deer attacked a worker after she approached too closely while it was giving birth; handlers and a reporter are petting a tiger;  and a keeper well within reach of a lion’s claws while she prepares to feed it.

Today Ontario’s lack of legislation around private ownership of exotic non-native animals is putting both animals and humans in jeopardy.  The province is sadly behind in regulating the practice. It’s time to get some rules in place. Until then, I’m not comfortable supporting these ventures so won’t be dropping by any of the local establishments to see their animal collections. I hope that my Ontario friends will consider doing likewise.


  • DO NOT visit roadside zoos or animal displays.
  • If you visit a roadside zoo to see the conditions firsthand, take photographs/video and make notes.
  • If you see an animal in distress or not housed for in accordance with the prescribed standards please contact the Ontario SPCA immediately.
  • Let Zoocheck know of any suspected or known violations affecting the welfare of zoo animals or the public’s safety at zoos.
  • Support efforts to legislate [pdf] regulations around the keeping of exotic non-native wildlife in Ontario.
  • Protect yourself: do not put yourself (or your children) within reach of wild animals (especially large predators), no matter how tame they seem.


Zoocheck Canada: Ontario Zoos Update (2011)

Wild Neighbours: The Safety and Security of Ontario’s Wildlife in Captivity Facilities (2011) [pdf]

Includes reports on the following zoos:

  1. Greenview Aviaries Park and Zoo
  2. Northwood Zoo and Animal Sanctuary
  3. Papanack Park Zoo
  4. The Killman Zoo
  5. Guha’s Tiger and Lion Farm
  6. Elmvale Jungle Zoo

Ontario Zoo Review Series (2008)

Includes reports on the following zoos:

  1. Greenview Aviaries, Park and Zoo
  2. The Killman Zoo
  3. Saunders County Critters Zoo and Garden Center
  4. Papanack Park Zoo
  5. Guha’s Tigers & Lions
  6. Northwood Zoo and Animal Sanctuary

Ontario Zoo Review Series (2006)

Includes reports on the following zoos:

  1. Bergeron’s Exotic Animal Sanctuary.
  2. Guha’s Lions and Tigers.
  3. Zooz and Marineland
  4. Killman Zoo
  5. Twin Valley Zoo
  6. Lickety Split Ranch and Zoo.

WSPCA: Ontario’s Roadside Zoos
Failing the Grade: A Report on Conditions in Ontario’s Zoos (2005) [pdf]