GuZoo quietly reopened last Sunday.
After a rocky year marked by controversy, owner Lynn Gustafson decided to close the Three Hills area zoo last November for the winter for the first time in 21 years. However, the family still accepted visits from family pass members and by appointments.
“The animals did fine during the winter, I mean they have always done fine,” said Bill Gustafson, son of owner Lynn Gustafson and a GuZoo employee.
“We didn’t have to worry that someone was out there with a camera, trying to take a picture to make GuZoo look bad.”
GuZoo is the largest private zoo in Alberta and is home to close to 400 animals, among them lions, tigers, cougars, lynx, bobcats, monkeys, parrots, wolves, camels and one serval. The Gustafsons also keep cows, horses, goats, sheep, dogs and cats. The facility also serves as an animal sanctuary.
After pictures appeared on various social media websites during the 2011 winter allegedly showing animals living in unclean conditions, the province contracted the Canadian Association of Zoos and Aquariums (CAZA) to investigate the zoo. The process involved inspecting 108 elements under Alberta Zoo Standards. According to the CAZA report, GuZoo did not meet standards in 77 elements. The government of Alberta then ordered the decommissioning of GuZoo on June 9, 2011, but Gustafson countered by requesting a judicial review. On July 5, a consent order was signed, allowing GuZoo to operate under court-imposed conditions while the decommission order was undergoing legal review. Under those conditions, the Gustafsons cannot bring new animals in or let animals off the premises. The Gustafsons must also notify Drumheller District Fish and Wildlife of any injuries caused by animals to visitors or zoo employees and of any injuries, illness or deaths of animals within 48 hours.
“I think we are doing worse than the animals. The animal rights groups go on about how people should be treated like animals. They think the animals are distressed,” said Gustafson.
“Well, the animals are happy. But what the groups are doing is actually causing more distress. I guess it’s basically a form of bullying.”
The Gustafsons have been trying to work out the situation with Alberta Sustainable Resource Development (SRD), which is responsible for zoo standards in the province, but the younger Gustafson says the ministry is not returning their calls.
“I guess they thought they had enough to shut us down last June. And yet, two months later, they put it off because they don’t have enough to do anything yet,” said Gustafson.
“They won’t admit it, but they bowed to the pressure of the campaign last spring. I bet that 98 per cent of the emails that they received were not from Alberta.”
When contacted, Alberta SRD public affairs officer Duncan MacDonnell said the zoo’s situation is out of the ministry’s hands
“The zoo is operating under conditions imposed by a court order. Our only involvement is enforcing the Wildlife Act,” he said.
“If somebody makes a complaint about something there, we go and investigate. Otherwise, our officers pay regular visits.”
Gustafson believes that the animal rights groups will never stop campaigning against GuZoo. “And once GuZoo is closed, they will move on to Discovery Wildlife Park in Innisfail,” he said. “Then, they will have time to work on the Calgary Zoo and the Edmonton Valley Zoo again. That’s all it amounts to.”
Gustafson says that the negative campaign is affecting visitors’ perception.
“A lot of time, people would come and maybe enjoy it but now they have been tainted by the animal rights groups. They have nothing nice to say,” he said.
“Their minds are poisoned before they get here. It’s a crooked thing is what the animal rights groups are doing.”