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The Zoo That Divided a Town

AP Photo/Kevin Anderson

In April 2020, Mark and Tammy Drysdale moved to the 2,500-person town of Grand Bend, Ontario and bought a shuttered roadside zoo. Then they started filling the property with lions, goats, lemurs, and various exotic animals. Unfortunately, their property was no longer zoned for zoos. It was now zoned residential. The outspoken owner, Mark, claimed his lions were basically domesticated cats, and local bylaws allowed domesticated animals. Certain neighbors said otherwise, and they worked to close down the zoo. For the Canadian quarterly magazine Maisonneuve, Kieran Delamont writes about the town’s struggle with the zoo, and what larger social and economic forces this resistence represents. Delamont sees the zoo as a barometer of town health, a way to measure the distance between the rich and poor, the past and the future, and the thin threads that often bind communities like Grand Bend, which only has one intersection.

None of it is enough, for Drysdale at least, so he keeps adding new animals to the mix like a roughshod Noah stocking his arc. In September, a baby zebra is born. In October, another lion cub arrives. These kinds of home-brew zoos have existed in Ontario for at least a hundred years—a network that, in the vacuum created by a lack of regulations, sprang up alongside the growing highway network. With a little ingenuity, and some cash on hand, these animals are not as hard to acquire as people imagine. Twice a year, an “Odd and Unusual” animal auction is held somewhere in southern Ontario, functioning like a trading post. Exotic cats are still a somewhat prized auction item, but someone could expect to see lynx, lemurs, llamas, reptiles, even wolves, up for sale. This exotic animal community is a tradition of rural Ontario, and Drysdale is deeply entrenched in it.

But if there’s no space for Drysdale in today’s Grand Bend, it’s at least partly because today’s Grand Bend is different from that old Grand Bend. The town has always been a place filled with lake people—its own Ontario character type, comprising enthusiastic cottagers and the more grizzly beachfront locals. Lake people earnestly own painted Adirondack chairs, insist on idiosyncratic house rules to various card games and probably have at least one nautically decorated bathroom. Every year since I was a baby, we lake people show up in Grand Bend for May Two-Four weekend and leave as late as we can on Labour Day.

It’s always been a culture of the leisured middle class, catered to by the labour of teenagers at the ice cream stand, supplied by travelling salesmen of the flea market, entertained by the hospitality of people like Drysdale who opened little roadside businesses and simply let the tourists come to them. But that kind of economic rejuvenation, it seems, may no longer be the kind people want.

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