Large cat retreat planned for Grand Bend

Couple intends to open Roaring Cat Retreat in June

Mark and Tammy Drysdale have bought the property of the former Pineridge Zoo south of Grand Bend and are planning to open a large cat retreat in June which will include lions and tigers. Scott Nixon / Exeter Lakeshore Times-Advance

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GRAND BEND – A couple from Brantford has moved to property south of Grand Bend with hopes of opening a rescue sanctuary for large cats such as lions, tigers, lynx and cougars.

Mark and Tammy Drysdale have bought the property that was the former site of the Pineridge Zoo and intend to open their Roaring Cat Retreat on the 10-acre property off Parkview Crescent in June. Mark Drysdale said the couple has also bought a 12-acre portion of bush between their property and the backyards of homes on Klondyke Road to serve as a buffer area. He said that area will remain as bush.

But some area residents have expressed safety concerns about the plans for the property and Lambton Shores Mayor Bill Weber confirmed with the Times-Advance on the weekend that he has received many concerned phone calls from residents, as have his fellow councillors. There has also been much discussion on social media, he said. While Weber has not yet spoken to the Drysdales he said municipal staff have asked to meet with them as zoning changes, building permits and a public meeting may be necessary.

“We don’t really know exactly what they’re doing,” Weber said, adding the municipality’s concern is for the safety of its residents.

“We want to see what they’re planning,” he said of the owners.

The Drysdales explained their plans to the T-A last week. Tammy said most of the cats will be rescues that need a place to live. She said they could be cats that were in the movie industry or someone’s exotic pet that grew too big for the owners. She said Roaring Cat Retreat will be a home for the animals.

She said the animals are tame and Mark works with them every day. Roaring Cat Retreat will serve as an education centre and there will be an admission fee to help pay for food and care for the animals.

Mark said Roaring Cat Retreat has nothing to do with the former zoo that closed on the site more than a decade ago. He said the sanctuary will be well over a $1 million venture and the enclosures for the animals will exceed standards set by Canada’s Accredited Zoos and Aquariums. Each cat’s enclosure will be about half an acre in size, Mark said, and fences will be about 11 feet high with electricity at the top and bottom. In addition each enclosure is protected by a double-door security system which leads out to an alley that is also gated and fenced.

Mark said his passion for rescuing animals started with St. Bernards. After the movie Beethoven came out in the early 1990s, Mark said many people bought St. Bernard puppies and ended up getting rid of them when they realized how big they grew. Eventually, his interest grew to caring for large cats, and he has trained and worked with large cats for about 20 years. He also works with the animals in movies and commercials and said when someone in the film industry needs a well-behaved lion or tiger, they call him.

He said he expects to have eight to 12 large cats on the site.

Mark said the cats are very intelligent and are calmer than most dogs. He said they don’t just operate by instinct and he can tell when they are happy or upset.

“When I ask them to sit, they do,” he said. “They’re very well behaved.”

While Tammy concedes there have been complaints from some Lambton Shores residents about the plans for the property, she said most people have been positive. Mark said once he explains to people what they are doing, they understand.

He said he has always loved Grand Bend, and when he and Tammy were visiting, they learned that the Parkview property was for sale. He said a developer from Toronto was also interested in the property for a row of townhouses.

While he told the T-A he believes Roaring Cat Retreat can be grandfathered under the zoning that the former zoo ran under, Mayor Weber said it may need to go through a zoning change.

Tammy and Mark said safety is their number one priority. Mark said he’s excited about the plans for Roaring Cat Retreat and about 20 people will be hired to work there. He said he’s sourcing everything locally.

Mark said the problem of large cats needing a home is getting worse because zoos are closing and the animals have nowhere to go. He said animals born in captivity cannot be introduced into the wild for a number of reasons. He said it’s illegal to do so and the animal would be “torn to shreds” by the other animals. They also wouldn’t have the proper immune systems to live in the wild.

Mark said he spends about two hours every day with each cat. He said they will also have a place to swim on the property.

The Drysdales plan to hold a public information session to explain to the public their plans for the property.

Mark Drysdale is the former owner of Ringtail Ranch and Rescue in Wainfleet, Ont., which was ordered closed to the public in August 2016 by Niagara Region Public Health and the Township of Wainfleet amid concerns diseases could be spread by the animals from scratches and bites. There was also a media report that a lion escaped from the property in 2017, something the owners denied. Ringtail Ranch has since closed.