Register Wednesday | June 12 | 2024
Habitat Loss Photography by Eamon Mac Mahon.

Habitat Loss

A man arrived in Grand Bend, Ontario, believing it was a refuge for strange species. Kieran Delamont observes the fallout.

Mark Drysdale is pretty pissed off. The Amazon rainforest is still on fire, for one thing—major bummer. And then there’s the clear-cutting happening down in Madagascar, and climate change, and global extinctions—none of them good things, which is partly why he thinks everyone needs to lay off about the dozen or so lions and tigers living on his property.

“They’re fucked down there,” Drysdale says. I am pretty sure he means in Brazil. “Whether you realize it or not—you should look it up—they say we’re losing about ten species every day with this fire now. We’re losing stuff they didn’t even know was there.”

But not lions, he says. “Lions will never go extinct, I promise you that,” he tells me, leaning against a picnic table in the middle of the Roaring Cat Retreat. The Retreat is located in Grand Bend, Ontario, a one-intersection town of just over 2,500 permanent residents on the shore of Lake Huron. The Retreat had been operating for about four months when I visited in late August and is doing its part to keep lions on this earth, even if the wild ones do go extinct. “They’re so easy to care for. You bring them in, you feed them—they’re great, they don’t do anything,” Drysdale says. “And they’re relatively good-hearted.” 

Behind Drysdale is an aging metal cage with a sign warning against petting the four large lions inside: Alex, Savannah, Gabby and Oden. “Relatively good-hearted,” he’d said. Relative to what? I ask myself. The lions lie around lazily on a couple of wooden structures and picnic tables. Lions in an enclosure in Grand Bend don’t live very taxing lives. Stand up occasionally, look around, lie back down, lightly slap your tail against the wood or the dirt. Every third day or so Drysdale throws in “150 to two hundred pounds of meat” for them to eat; on all the other days it’s only twenty-five. When it gets hot, one of Drysdale’s volunteer-slash-employees tells me, she throws frozen chicken breasts into the cage, adding that for lions that’s basically a popsicle.  Their enclosure is attached to a building where they can stay when it gets cold, but Drysdale says they will happily bounce around in the snow during the winter. For African lions, they are living decidedly North American lives. 

In April, Drysdale and his wife Tammy bought the old Pineridge Zoo in Grand Bend, arriving from a town three hours away on the other side of southwestern Ontario. Pineridge was a roadside zoo that was open from 1970 to 2007, just south of Grand Bend along the Bluewater Highway, the mostly two-lane spinal road that runs along the lakefront from the oil country outside of Sarnia, all the way up to Owen Sound. 

Or, rather, Drysdale bought a property that used to be a zoo; in 2007, the property had reverted to a residential zoning, which technically means you can’t open a commercial zoo there. Doesn’t matter, Drysdale says. His lions are essentially domesticated cats. “If you look at their bylaws, they allow only domesticated animals,” he says. As we sit at a picnic table in the middle of the yard, Drysdale whips out his phone and Googles the definition of “domesticated” and then points to the sleeping lions. He doesn’t really give me much time to read the definition, quickly closing his phone. “So there you go. Done. We don’t even have to talk to them.” 

By any definition of the word, however, Drysdale has been moving a zoo onto the property. And that has set off a protracted, bitter fight between neighbours, the town government, animal-rights activists and Drysdale’s personal enemies, which has now landed the Municipality of Lambton Shores, the amalgamated municipality of which Grand Bend is a part, in court. The court case revolves around a bylaw the town passed, virtually in secret, to outlaw Drysdale’s pets right after he moved in. 

The old Pineridge Zoo was a decrepit and rusted-out pile of scrap metal by the time the Drysdales arrived. The Drysdales are still in the process of building new cage out of lumber and what looks like metal chicken wire; when I visit again, a few days later, it’s all hands on deck to get the enclosure ready by the time two large tigers return from shooting a movie in America. (Renting out his cats is a main source of Drysdale’s income, he says.) 

The zoo has attracted a dozen or so volunteers, both local supporters and people Drysdale knew from outside Grand Bend who have followed him here. As two volunteers, Crystal and Kris, show me around the zoo, a bunch of other animals mill around us aimlessly. There’s a zebra named Princess, half a dozen goats and a large turtle named Frank Da Tank who, Crystal explains, has to be careful not to drink too much water or else he might explode out of his shell. In another cage, there are two more baby lions, Bella and Troy. A dog named Pudding chases around a miniature pig named Willie trying to mount it. Pudding is in heat, so nobody bats an eye. 

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.

Behind the main yard of the Roaring Cat Retreat, as you walk down an overgrown trail that narrows the deeper you go, you can still see what’s left of the old Pineridge Zoo. Little wooden huts that were once home to spider monkeys have collapsed in on themselves, unused for a decade at least. The path meanders through the scrubby southern Ontario forest, a dense mix of deciduous trees and woody vine plants. To anyone else looking at it, it’s a plain forest, interrupted only by walking trails, some of them leftover from the old zoo, some of them worn by years of wanderers’ feet.  Most lead nowhere. 

Above you, cicadas buzz in the late August sun. At the right angle, sunlight hits your face, streaming through leafy clearings where baboons, tigers, wolves and a jaguar used to live in homemade enclosures. The further in you go, the further away the world feels as the forest fills in behind you, insulating you from the sound of the zoo and the nearby highway. Around here, this is what’s left of the ancient Carolinian forest, the last strip of trees separating the lake and its community from the expansive agricultural lands that seem to go on and on and on across the province; the tree line where Grand Bend ends and the rest of the universe begins. 

The old Grand Bend, the one Pineridge existed in, was always good for a story or two. In the 2012 US presidential campaign, the press briefly dwelled on the time Mitt Romney strapped his dog Seamus to the roof of his car and drove to his cottage in 1983.  He was coming to Grand Bend from Boston; the Romney cottage was just down the road from my family’s, which I was always told my grandmother bought on the cheap, since someone got caught running drugs there. I don’t know whether this story is true, but one time when I was young, my dad took us kids into the garage to show us the floor joist with a false front on it, which we all thought was pretty cool. Like most beach towns, Grand Bend always seems to attract a collection of cottagers, locals and renters here to party, a mix that causes the lines between story and rumour to blur.

Now the population is aging—51 percent of the townspeople are over sixty-five. More importantly, the constant drive for beachfront real estate keeps churning up the town’s socioeconomic demographics in a less conventional kind of gentrification. It’s accelerating: in 2018, prices in Ontario’s “recreational home market” (which is what the real estate market calls cottages) rose more than 7 percent, according to Royal LePage. The real estate firm quoted one of their sales reps putting it starkly: “In Muskoka, we are seeing people in their fifties and sixties cashing out with significant amounts of money, as well as those who are coming into money and want to get out of the rat race. A three-hundred-foot lot on southern Lake Joe once would be about $1.6 million. Now, if I found one west-facing it would likely be $3 million.” 

But it’s the little changes those dollar figures create that you really notice—the inflation in the price of a beach-bar beer, or the shops selling brand-name clothes up and down the main strip, or the fact that you have to tape up a wi-fi code to the cottage fridge. Ask anyone and they’ll tell you they came here to get away from the city, but more and more they seem to be happy to escape to city comforts at city prices. 

“In your life there are a few places, or maybe only one place, where something has happened,” wrote Alice Munro, a native of neighbouring Huron County. “And then there are all the other places.” Spending summers or holidays or Christmases in Grand Bend, I always felt like it was on the edge of something: of prosperity; of the start of another school year; of Ontario; recently, of it becoming just another place. Grand Bend was always like a secret. It had a mysterious appeal, with the long summer days casting everyone into a limited state of beachy delirium. When the mini golf on the main strip got sold and torn down, when they closed down the video store where we rented B-rate horror movies as kids, when the neighbours sold their place and never visit anymore: to me, sometimes, the last place from my childhood I can still go feels like it’s always on the edge of disappearing, fading gradually, bit by bit, like a sunset over Lake Huron. Any further and we’ll fall into the lake and maybe float to Michigan. 

The lions showed up in early April, the same time as Mark and Tammy. It was a bit of a surprise to the neighbourhood, whose residents say they got nothing in the way of notice that several large predatory cats would be living nearby. Drysdale doesn’t think that’s on him, because he says he told the town’s head planner, Will Nywening, exactly what he and Tammy were doing. (Nywening told me he wasn’t authorized to speak about it to media.)

Two things made Grand Bend an attractive location for Mark Drysdale: it had, first, an abandoned zoo for sale and, second, no municipal laws governing what animals you could and could not put in there. Not much happens in Grand Bend when the tourists aren’t in town, so this was big news (it doesn’t have its own newspaper; big news is when the media make the hour-long drive up from London). When Drysdale was interviewed by the CBC in April, he said he had “ten or twelve” lions and tigers. For his neighbours, the lack of specificity was a bit unnerving. The tongue-in-cheek way he phrased this announcement on Facebook—“stay tuned for more vicious lion attacks” and then a lion emoji—may not have been the most reassuring introduction, either.

There would have been a time when someone like Drysdale could have opened up a roadside zoo without much trouble from anyone. In Grand Bend, that time wasn’t even all that long ago—about twelve years, to be more exact, when the last zoo closed for good—and there are still plenty of parts of the province where Drysdale could set up shop pretty comfortably. Roadside zoos are still common, with dozens, if not hundreds, of them scattered across the province. Unlike most provinces, Ontario still has no laws regulating this. The zoos pop up along major routes, off every third or fourth highway exit: a Jungle Cat World Wildlife here, a Little Ray’s Reptile Zoo there, a Happy Rolph’s Animal Farm in some town you’d probably never think to stop in otherwise. Just about everyone who grew up in Ontario can still recite the jingle for the African Lion Safari. 

But the Drysdales would not be left alone. The machinery of town government turned against them—fast. On April 14, a Sunday afternoon, many concerned townspeople met in a small church a few minutes down Highway 21, on the other side of Grand Bend from the zoo. A few days earlier, neighbourhood kids had dropped off yellow paper invitations in mailboxes. “Please join us to discuss the ‘Roaring Cat Retreat’ which has moved into the former zoo on Parkview Ave,” the invitation read. The Drysdales say they were never invited. 

Two town councillors, Dan Sageman and Dave Maguire, were at the meeting, however. Sageman, the area’s elected official, was its unofficial leader, according to neighbours who attended. (Sageman declined to comment for this story, saying the situation is now subject to a court case.) At the meeting, residents were informed that the town intended to pass an exotic pet bylaw that would ban a long list of exotic animals within the Municipality of Lambton Shores, and that they would be passing it within a day.

This was news to Drysdale. “Monday morning, we were supposed to have a meeting down [with] the city,” he says. A town official told Drysdale that they wanted to talk about his plans for the zoo. “He only called us in to hand us a bylaw,” Drysdale says. 

The new law was voted in at noon. By the time Mark and Tammy found out about it, it was too late to object. Drysdale didn’t get a chance to present at the meeting, which wasn’t officially about him but was definitely about him. To this day, he’s still in the dark about how it was done, since there is virtually no record of what was said at the council meetings. Few people from the town were there because practically nobody knew that there was a council meeting happening at all. It lasted only fifteen minutes, and nobody voted against the bylaw. Just like that, it was official that the Drysdales wouldn’t be welcomed the way they thought they’d be.

Neighbours complain about the noise. Lions, as they do, roar every now and again, and black and white ruffed lemurs, of which the Drysdales have four, occasionally communicate with each other in a form of spontaneous primal screeching that the species has come to be known for.

They complain about the anxiety the Retreat is causing. One person in the neighbourhood (who asked that I not use their name because of their day job) says their young daughter is afraid to wait for the school bus, because she’s scared that a lion may be let loose. 

They complain that the place is just gross. “It’s hardly a sanctuary,” Shirley Roebuck tells me. She heard about the Retreat from a friend and drove over one day in mid-August, hoping to get some intel that she could pass on to the authorities. “I would term it a prison camp… I’m bad with estimating how big these [enclosures] were, but even I know they were too small.” Roebuck, a retired nurse, says she asked Tammy how the lions were fed, and was horrified when she was told that someone had dropped off a deer carcass they found on the road. She wants to see all the animals confiscated and taken somewhere with accreditation and the financial support to care for them. “Those animals deserve to be rescued,” she says. 

It couldn’t have taken all that long for the neighbours to figure out just who they were dealing with in Mark Drysdale, either. Drysdale arrived in Grand Bend with a checkered and somewhat questionable past as a zoo operator. He’d started conventionally enough, by rescuing, in the nineties, a bunch of Saint Bernards which he says people were dropping off at shelters in droves after adopting them based largely on the cuteness of Beethoven the dog in the films Beethoven and Beethoven’s 2nd. “They started out as this little football as a puppy, and then all of a sudden they don’t even fit in your car anymore,” says Drysdale. “And they drool a half a gallon a day. But I love ’em.” 

Over time, he expanded his clan. A coatimundi first, later a monkey. But lions, big cats—that was a real prize, an apex predator. “I’ve always loved big cats, and I’ve always said that when my kids get old enough, I can do it without endangering my family,” he says. “Like, if something does happen to me I’m not leaving a family of five-year-old kids behind.” Life insurance, he adds, is not all that easy to get in his line of work.

Professionally, however, Drysdale’s love for lions has caused him to lurch from one public-relations nightmare to the next. A quick web search turns up several stories on Drysdale’s previous zoo, called the Ringtail Ranch and Rescue, which he and his ex-wife built and opened in 2003 in Wainfleet, Ontario, in the Niagara region. In 2016, Niagara Public Health closed it to the public after numerous reports of scratches and bites. (“They’re lies,” is Drysdale’s view of the matter. “This girl decided to climb her way over the fence of the lynx and smash the Plexiglas window. She was twelve years old. She did it with a stick. So the cat reached out to give her a little scratch on the back of her neck.”) 

Wainfleet township officials, at their own meeting over whether to regulate exotic animals, posted photos of the girl in a PowerPoint presentation, showing long, bloody claw marks behind her ear. They also discussed a man in the township whose 235 reptiles, including crocodiles, had been removed from his home after his death in 2011.

Perhaps most concerning in Wainfleet, if you were a neighbour, would be the articles written after one of Drysdale’s lions, Savannah, was caught on camera roaming freely on the side of the road in Wainfleet, the year after Ringtail was closed to the public. Drysdale says he was nearby putting up Christmas decorations, so nobody had anything to worry about. He has an answer for everything; if his animals have ever caused anyone any grief, his position is that it’s not his problem. 

Grand Bend swells, and has always swelled, during the summer months; much of the town’s economy still depends on these people. The roadside zoo makes for a family-friendly alternative to the beach or the main town strip. This summer, guests still flocked to meet Drysdale’s pets and still told him what a great time they had, spending a day with their kids. I’m just young enough not to remember if it feels like the old zoo—I was a toddler when the old Pineridge Zoo began to go into decline. Today, visitors might be campers from the nearby Pinery Provincial Park or people passing driving up the shoreline who just need to let the kids burn off some steam—or maybe, these days, also just to see if the rumours are true. 

“We’ll still have thousands of people come through, and the only difference will be, they will do it under the understanding that this city and the people in it are a bunch of assholes,” says Drysdale. If the town tries to take his cats he will tell everyone to go shop in Goderich, the next town over, he says. 

But over the last decade or two, as the town has attracted cottagers and tourists who have seemed wealthier, flashier, than before, the town government takes what they think, and where they spend their money, very seriously. Rita Hartley, an author whose cottage overlooks the town marina, is a cottager from London, Ontario. She’s an example of the kind of affluent types the town has attracted in the last twenty years—urbanites looking for a getaway that still has all the pleasures and conveniences of modern life. When Hartley bought the place, it wasn’t winterized, so they knocked it to the ground and built a home from the ground up. All over the cottage community, around the same time, the houses got bigger, the cars got fancier, the beaches more private. 

Hartley would like to see the lions moved out of town. “It’s in the back of my mind sometimes. I don’t like it,” she says, as we sit on her back deck. “That’s frightening. I mean, if you want to own exotic pets, and dangerous animals, you have to understand that you’re putting the public at risk, not just yourself... If that’s what you feel a need to do, then you need to be somewhere where it’s very isolated,” she says. 

Is “isolated” essentially a euphemism for “not here,” or “not where I go on vacation?” I wonder aloud. Hartley considers the question. “There are, I guess, different personalities who gravitate to things that are dangerous,” she says. “But it’s a beautiful beach resort. We should be entitled to maintain the value of our property. We’re not expecting someone to move in next door like that.”

Zoo experts agree that the zoo does pose a real threat and suggest being skeptical of anyone saying lions and tigers are calm, docile kitties. “Oh my God, yes, absolutely,” says Rob Laidlaw, founder of Zoocheck, a wildlife protection charity that studies the conditions of zoos across Canada, when I ask him if the neighbours (or I, for that matter) should consider these cats to be a safety concern. “A lot of facilities are housing animals that are horrendously dangerous.” 

He’s seen photos of the cage Drysdale is keeping lions in, he says. “If I were a neighbour I’d be very worried.” Most of the fences are too low, he thinks, scalable by an enterprising (or hungry) lion or tiger. “I’ve been involved in this stuff for thirty years and been in some places where I’m looking around to make sure I can run faster than someone else.”

Drysdale has nothing in the way of formal training, he says. I ask him about Drysdale’s explanation for this: that of course he doesn’t have “formal training” for exotic animals because no such formal training exists. That’s “completely false,” Laidlaw says. “There are courses run through zoo associations, there are mentoring programs, there are intern programs. There’s all kinds of programs overseas.” Don’t years of experience count for something? I ask. People who are “self-taught,” he answers, will sometimes “get things right; other times they won’t.” Later, looking at the teeth of a Siberian tiger, I decide that getting things right feels pretty non-negotiable.

As I leave the Drysdales’ property I begin to wonder if their propensity to attract critics is about more than just their exotic pets, or if it’s their entire lifestyle that makes them outsiders. Is keeping exotic pets the main difference between Drysdale and town, or is it simply one expression of a larger, more profound social difference? The Drysdales’ neighbours have manicured, pastoral front yards; they have a gravel parking lot and are building a fence. Other neighbours have pools; in Drysdale’s backyard, there’s a trailer where the lion trainer lives. It is hard to imagine that none of this affects how Drysdale has been received; if human history has proven anything, it’s that we are good at judging each other based on vague impressions gleaned from behind the zebra fence, so to speak. 

Zoo owners these days are often afforded few chances to explain themselves; they’re held up as examples of a lingering, unfashionable hillbilliness. Public opinion seems to be shifting to see these roadside zoos as inhumane anachronisms, the rawest example of the inherent cruelty of the zoo industry.  At the Arnprior Fair, just west of Ottawa, protestors demonstrated for hours to try to get the fair to stop showing animals from the nearby Papanack Zoo, one of the more reviled roadside zoos in the province. They accused the town of Arnprior of being “proud to support animal abuse”; one sign read, “Papanack Zoo ~ see your animal friends IN PRISON.” 

An incident in early November didn’t help Drysdale’s cause. The thing that everyone had been worrying about happened: two lions got out. Baby lions, mind you, but for neighbours (one of whom, Owen Vincent, was on hand to snap a picture) it confirmed that, in principle, Drysdale was unable to guarantee his lions were contained. The media got ahold of it, writing that “the whole town is talking about it.” Besieged by calls, Tammy wrote a statement claiming that someone had cut the locks, and she simply read the statement aloud every time a reporter called.

It’s true that on the fringes of rural Ontario, people like the Drysdales are getting pushed away, even if it’s in the most banal of ways, by the municipal bylaw office. The push to amalgamate the province’s towns in the early 1990s was supposed to be a win for Ontario’s small-government, small-c conservative elements; instead, by the mid-2010s all it had created was a 38 percent increase in the size of those governments, and more tools with which to manage more land. Budget hawks focus on how much more this costs, and what cuts it necessitated, but rarely does anyone ask what the bureaucratization of small-town Ontario did to all its quirky charms.

Or maybe all of it is just the forever Ontarian struggle to control the Canadian wild, to break the land before it breaks you. Maybe the struggle between bureaucracy and untamed individuality just hasn’t been solved yet; maybe, in Canada, it never can be. 

The Drysdales’ passion for their animals is similar as what drove Norman Buwalda to fight so hard against his own municipality a decade earlier. Buwalda was a rich businessman from Southwold Township and the onetime chairman of the Canadian Exotic Animal Owner’s Association. He fought his municipality in court to keep the 650-pound Siberian tiger that ultimately mauled him to death in 2010. 

In death, Buwalda has become a cautionary tale—about tigers. But who remembers, these days, that Buwalda didn’t just consider his fight to be about animals, but about a town abusing its power to dictate what eccentricities one is allowed to engage in on their own property? In the early 2000s, courts struck down several Ontario municipalities’ attempts to ban exotic animals. In Windsor, a bylaw aimed at shutting down a popular circus in 2004 was struck down after the judge found that the culture of exotic animalkeeping “constitutes a distinctive culture, one aspect of which is the unique bond and integration between humans and different species of animals.” Two years later, Buwalda won his case on similar merits. 

The Drysdale case could re-contest this question yet again, more than a decade later and in a vastly different cultural climate. More towns in the province now have exotic animal bylaws on the books. A couple years after Buwalda’s case, the Ontario government mused about regulating them at a provincial level, though it backed away from the idea. And then there’s the ongoing gentrification of Ontario’s rural areas, where many of the zoos are located. The Grand Bend case begs the question of exactly where in the province people like the Drysdales might be allowed to live. Bit by bit, Ontario is becoming a no-go zone. Until it’s all off-limits, how far away is far enough? 

On Saturday of the Labour Day long weekend, after the crowds at the Roaring Cat Retreat had died down, Tammy Drysdale logged onto Facebook and presumably figured out that a small group of amateur sleuths and spies had visited their zoo to investigate, and photograph, what animal had been delivered in a trailer the night before (it was the two Siberian tigers returning from their movie shoot). She decided to write directly to the people who had been coordinating opposition to the Retreat.

“I challenge you to go to the Roaring Cat Retreat this weekend especially if you haven’t been before and even if you have. Come see for yourself and talk to the owners before you believe the rumours, half truths and lies that are being spread,” she wrote. “I know many of you are set in your ways and have decided no matter what you are against this...but please do yourselves a favour and come and see what we are doing and come talk to us.” 

It didn’t go well. The people she was talking to ganged up on her right away. “Tammy Drysdale I think you need to fart out all that smoke being blown up your ass,” wrote one commenter. “I will never support this horrible place,” wrote another. 

“My fifteen cats will live out their lives here,” Drysdale has told me, repeatedly. I have so far only counted eight cats and try not to worry about the discrepancy. Since the town passed the bylaw in April, the two camps have remained locked in a standoff. While the Drysdales have been charged for several different infractions (running a commercial operation in a residential zone; violating the exotic animal bylaw; his lemurs violating the noise control bylaw), the town has not yet exercised the power it gave itself to forcibly remove non-compliant animals from the property. 

The community’s anger did score it one victory. On October 17, Drysdale announced on Facebook that the Retreat would be closed to the public for the foreseeable future “due to ongoing legal issues.” While he fights the bylaw in court, the town has won an injunction preventing him from letting the animals out of the cages and barring members of the public from entering the zoo. In November, Tammy limited access to the property to a court-approved list of six family and friends. Court hearings were scheduled for December but could take years to conclude; as they begin, the Drysdales felt the need to launch a fundraising campaign. In the end, the idea that the Roaring Cat Retreat might be able to revive some of Grand Bend’s zoological charm seems increasingly unlikely. 

In small towns, conflict can erode social relationships, and in Grand Bend, Drysdale and his cats became, at some point, an interrogation of the connective tissue that has held together rich people and poor people, locals and tourists and chi-chi cottagers—of past and present and future, really, even as that mix feels more and more improbable. Neighbours desperately want to see the cats gone, but what else, who else, goes with them if they do? What if getting rid of the tigers robs Grand Bend of some essential part of its Grand Bend-iness? 

Still, for a moment on Saturday afternoon, all of that seems far away. Labour Day weekend in Grand Bend is a big deal, the last hurrah. A time for positivity, a “last one to leave, make sure to turn out the lights” kind of weekend. Someone will make this joke to you if you are there. People throw parties, neighbourhoods plan parades, cottagers soak up the last few minutes of summer before it’s back to school and real life. 

On that Saturday Labour Day afternoon, at Roaring Cat Retreat, supporters of the Drysdales and volunteers proudly wear branded Retreat t-shirts, which are also piled up for sale just inside the gate. Kids run around, chased by parents. A lady yanks, hard, on a baby zebra’s harness to wrangle it into a photo. One of the trainers crawls into the baby lion cage and lies down on the picnic table with one of the small cats. Everyone is pacing: Khaleesi, the lynx, paces anxiously along the length of her enclosure; one of the lions, Gabby, paces along the fence separating her from two tigers; three young guys stare, transfixed, at the tiger pacing along its own enclosure; Mark and Tammy pace around playing host. 

It’s easy to forget, if you want to, that for many people this is an intensely upsetting situation. A volunteer named Kyle, watching kids stare in awe at the two tigers, sees my notebook and leans over to me. 

“So,” he asks. “What’s your take on all this?”