Brandon Vanderwel says he's traveled the world, spending a lot of time in big cat sanctuaries in places like Florida, New Zealand and Australia.
Brandon Vanderwel says he’s travelled the world, spending a lot of time in big cat sanctuaries in places such as Florida, New Zealand and Australia.
Now the Sarnia man is trying to make a sanctuary of his own for two one-year-old lion siblings named Pride and Joy.
It’ll be up to South Huron council July 13 if he gets his wish.
Last September, the owner of a Sarnia-based property management company found the then four-month-old cubs in “a not-good situation” and adopted them.
They were at risk of being euthanized or living out their lives in horse stalls, he and Destiny Duncan – who works as operations manager for Vanderwel at Elite Property Group – said in a recent submission to South Huron council. They are asking that municipality for an exemption to the local bylaw that prohibits keeping, exhibiting and transporting wild, exotic and non-domestic animals, including lions.
“I’m not really going to comment on what it is because I don’t really want to throw anybody under the bus by any means,” Vanderwel said about where he first found Pride and Joy, only saying it was within Canada but not from around Sarnia-Lambton.
“They were used with their younger lives and were useless after that,” he said. “They were domesticated animals to begin with, born in captivity and used for profit of some sort and just were in a crummy situation.”
He adopted them to give them a better life and brought them to Roaring Cat Retreat in Lambton Shores, where he and Duncan were volunteering.
Expectations were the brother-and-sister lions would live out their lives there, he said, but that didn’t work out.
Roaring Cat Retreat closed earlier this month by court order. The legal fight was triggered when the municipality of Lambton Shores passed a bylaw prohibiting exotic animals after Roaring Cat Retreat purchased the former zoo property.
Roaring Cat Retreat was in a residential neighbourhood in Grand Bend and some had raised safety concerns.
In court documents, Roaring Cat Retreat owners said they were told by a Lambton Shores senior planner before closing on the deal to buy the property that, “since the property had operated as a zoo in the past, that an exotic animal retreat would be permitted as a legal non-conforming use.”
Sarnia Justice John Desotti said in his ruling the legal non-conforming use lapsed in 2006 when the former Pineridge Zoo closed.
Pride and Joy are now currently in a temporary location “at a very far distance,” Duncan said.
She and Vanderwel didn’t reveal where.
“Safety concern for them,” Vanderwel said.
Vanderwel is in the process of buying a three-hectare wooded lot not surrounded by other residential properties at 70114B Grand Bend Line, just south of the Grand Bend Motorplex.
Plans are to purchase the property regardless, he said, but he hopes to install large enclosure spaces for the lions with two lines of fencing, double doors, video cameras, various other safety measures, and someone on site at all times to monitor the property.
Duncan and Vanderwel, who’ve developed close bonds with the lions, said they have no plans to turn the property into a business or profit from the lions in any way.
“It’s solely just looking to find a place where they’re allowed to be, where we can house them safely, securely and have the people in the community surrounding that support it, give us blessings and feel safe as well,” Duncan said.
They want to be open with the community and answer questions, she said, inviting people to email them at email@example.com.
More details about their plans were presented to South Huron council in advance of the June 15 meeting.
“Security is our No. 1 priority,” Duncan said.
Making sure the cats are safe and comfortable is the other major focus, she said.
“These cats have a whole bunch of years left, and we just want them to be good ones.”
The expected investment in fencing alone for the sanctuary could be between $80,000 and $125,000, Vanderwel said.
In his letter, he said he was not involved in Roaring Cat Retreat’s dispute with Lambton Shores and said there will be no association with the owners of Roaring Cat Retreat.
At the June 15 virtual meeting, Coun. Dianne Faubert said “I love your cats,” noting she’d seen the lions interact with people when they were at Roaring Cat Retreat.
“I wouldn’t even mind having your establishment right next door to me,” she said.
Mayor George Finch said Monday he doesn’t think passing an exemption is the right move, citing safety concerns and negative feedback from community members about the proposal.
“We need to protect the public from any potential threats that could happen,” he said. “If they were to get loose, it’s a real threat to society.”
Security issues at other sanctuaries have been linked to things such as fences not being high enough, doors not being doubled, or animals not being well cared for, Duncan said.
“If people take the time to read our plans and understand where we’re coming from, then they would know that we plan on providing all of that, way above and beyond what is necessary.”
At the June 15 meeting, Duncan and Vanderwel said there are no plans to add more animals to the sanctuary.
Without council’s approval for an exemption from the bylaw, they will move to a different plan, Vanderwel said.
“We always have backup plans and different things for sure,” he said.
“But this is the best scenario for them,” Duncan added.
Big cats and their owners have been the source of controversy before in Southwestern Ontario.
In January 2010, Norman Buwalda of Southwold Township west of St. Thomas was mauled to death by his 300-kilogram pet tiger.
Buwalda, who was chairman of the Canadian Exotic Animal Owner’s Association, had successfully fought the municipality to keep exotic animals on his property.
With files from Scott Nixon, Exeter Lakeshore Times-Advance