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COLUMN: Urban Safari animals survive with dedicated help from friends

‘When COVID hit, it knocked the stuffing out of us’: Sharon Doucette
A sulcata tortoise hitches a ride with Kelsey Langille, animal care coordinator with the Urban Safari Rescue Society. Fully grown, a sulcata tortoise can weigh 300 pounds. (Photo: Ursula Maxwell-Lewis)

While the world worried about family, neighbours and safe grocery shopping, the Urban Safari Rescue Society focussed on the natural world. COVID didn’t stop abandoned, mistreated, malnourished reptiles, arachnids, amphibians, insects, birds, and mammals from landing on their doorstep.

“When COVID hit, it knocked the stuffing out of us,” recalls executive director Sharon Doucette. “We were in complete shock. It was terrible. Every revenue source dried up.”

Staff layoffs (including Gary Oliver who founded the organisation in 2007) were the order of the day. “Federal and other government subsidies helped a lot. A GoFundMe page and media publicity brought in several thousands of dollars. They made all the difference in the world,” Doucette says.

A call from a Whistler parent asking if the society would consider doing a children’s Zoom birthday party was a game changer. As a result staff is now adept at doing successful fast-moving 1-hour on-line presentations. “It was a real blessing and helped bridge the gap,” says Doucette. The idea has morphed into a permanent offering available for $140 plus GST with requests coming from across North America, Europe, Asia, and Australia.

Urban Safari Rescue Society has non-profit status therefore sponsor tax receipts are available. This helps defray the approximately $250,000 per year operating costs.

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Although 2021 summer camps are cancelled, select outdoor events are resuming. “We have to feel comfortable with reopening for the sake of humans and animals,” Doucette emphasizes. Courses include a nature club, plus junior zoo keeping, a more academic career-oriented course for teens.

Kelsey Langille, staff animal care coordinator, takes me out the classroom to introduce me to the residents.

Cautiously I stroke Banana, a ball python expertly wrangled by Kelsey. When his beady eyes and flicking forked tongue zero in on me I rapidly retreat. “You’ve never stroked a python before?” she asks. No! I tell her. Growing up in Africa we gave them a wide berth!

Switching to the Brazilian salmon pink bird-eating tarantula, I gingerly finger-tap the leggy arachnid with a tad more confidence and stroke the impressive shells of the sulcata tortoises known to live over 120 years. Phantom and Bonnie, two laid-back pot-bellied pigs, waddle out of their enclosures to be patted before Thelma, a seemingly over-caffeinated boneless ferret, arrives to be introduced. Nearby a gold sign on a fish tank proclaims: “Thank you! Lincoln for sponsoring the goldfish for two months!”

Respectfully I steer clear of the alligator snapping turtle which, I’m warned, bites.

Lizzie, a tiny leopard gecko with elegant yellow and black markings, was abandoned on the doorstep one day. Emaciated, starving and housed in a tank her tail, I’m told, was paper thin.

“They’re popular pets,” Kelsey explains, “but they’re hunters and only eat live insects. When people try to feed them freeze-dried meal worms they starve.” Running a finger down this tiny creature’s spine I appreciate the value of the TLC she’s received.

That leads to my pet peeve. I’m firmly opposed to people owning or selling exotic/wild animals.

Sharon Doucette agrees: “Selling exotic animals in pet stores should be stopped. Breeders should be licensed and have a quota. In Britain breeders have to be licensed, are assigned a quota and face hefty fines if the conditions are violated. That seems to have helped there.”

Education is a big part of the society’s mandate. Plan ahead and think seriously about whatever animal you plan to own, is their mantra.

1.) Seriously consider the animal’s lifestyle and your own; 2.) Don’t make spur of the moment purchases; 3.) Educate yourself on the related costs and animals needs; 4.) Benign neglect occurs through ignorance when people just don’t know what they’re doing.

Talking about neglect, the mention of animal dentistry catches my attention. I learn that pigs tusks need to be trimmed, and rabbit dentistry can be expensive. Their front teeth keep growing if not given the right things to chew on.

Throughout my tour, Sharon and Kelsey consistently reiterate that responsible animal care is emphasized in classes, camps, videos, even to casual visitors. Meanwhile, the hands-on work of rescuing and caring for abandoned exotic animals continues.

Urban Safari Rescue Society is a registered non-profit society with the mission of rescuing exotic animals at risk of abandonment or death and education of the public about animals,exotic animals and the natural world. Visit Urban Safari Rescue Society at 1395-176 St., Surrey, BC. Tel: 604-531-1100.

Ursula Maxwell-Lewis is a Surrey-based journalist and photographer. She can be reached at

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