FOCUS: Surrey shelter pledges to fight for exotic animals as SPCA enters scene

SURREY — "The Mating Game." "Extremely Weird Animals."

Those are just two titles in the mammoth library of Gary Oliver’s so-called "hideaway" in the makeshift Urban Safari Rescue Society space. Some 3,000 books line the walls of the office, located in the building’s centre, on just about any animal you can imagine. And many you can’t.

Awards and paintings adorn the room’s walls. One shows a much more youthful Oliver, wearing a massive hat and flamboyant jacket.

These days, you’ll more likely find him in signature faded black jeans, a button-up shirt, cowboy boots and matching hat. And he’s usually sporting a cougar claw on a necklace – the claw of a feline he saw stalking him in a rearview mirror before shooting a Dairyland commercial.

On another wall hangs a rendering of a high-tech ecology centre he envisions – think Vancouver Aquarium meets Science World, but bigger.

"It’s a dream," he mused, gazing at the image.

He hopes he can get the city and province on board with the project but the sticking point right now is the money to draft an official proposal.

So for now, the operation runs out of a building off of 176th Street, formerly a reptile refuge, near the Pacific Highway border crossing.

"We’re the biggest, littlest attraction in Surrey," Oliver proudly states.

It’s not a fancy operation. But they make do, adding and upgrading when the money is there. Mismatched aquariums and cages fill the facility, housing a plethora of reptiles and other critters.

Toward the back of the building you’ll find massive land turtles, "who pretty much just eat, sleep and poop," Oliver explains with a chuckle. One of them – Dozer – was recently a waiter in an Earls commercial.

Winding throughout the remainder of the space, you’ll find a pair of chinchillas, more turtles, pigs, pythons, plenty of birds and even a skunk named Febreeze.

The space is always a work in progress, Oliver says. A classroom for kids has just been built, which will double as a venue for birthday parties and other events. An exotic animal petting zoo is in the middle of construction, and a donation from Super Soils will allow the organization to create a grassy picnic area and space for an outdoor classroom.

"We build it as the money comes in," he explains.

Every animal has a story within the walls of the rescue facility. And Oliver knows each and every one.

Some exotics have come from locals who’ve found invasive species in their midst. Others have come from far and wide, such as Grandpa the tortoise, who came all the way from Missouri after being rescued from poachers.

Listening to Oliver talk about each animal, easily recalling their names and telling the stories of their lives, it’s clear his passion for animals runs deep.

That passion may be the reason he’s adamant about the society’s no-kill policy.

News that the BC SPCA has a plan for an exotic animals facility made him cringe, he said. He worries the animals will be euthanized.

"I can’t see them adopting them out," he said.

Lorie Chortyk, with the BC SPCA, said the organization is looking at building a facility to care for abandoned and surrendered exotic animals due to the lack of proper facilities in the province.

In response to Oliver’s concerns, Chortyk said the SPCA actually has one of the lowest euthanasia rates in North America.

"Even no-kill shelters regularly euthanize animals who are suffering or have untreatable aggression – it would be inhumane to do otherwise," said Chortyk.

"Our euthanasia rates fall well within the definition of no-kill and we euthanize only if an animal is so badly injured or sick that the only humane option is to end his or her suffering, or if an animal – in our case usually a dog – is so aggressive that they pose a serious threat if adopted out into the community."

She adds, "Our goal is always to save the lives of animals and provide the best possible welfare for them."

Tension between the organizations isn’t new. In 2010, the SPCA and Ministry of Environment launched an animal cruelty investigation against Urban Safari after four caimans’ died in Oliver’s care following a cold spell.

The SPCA says during the investigation it was determined that Oliver "failed to provide adequate heat to the animals." The organization recommended charges against him but they were not approved by Crown counsel.

Oliver worries if larger, more powerful operations enter the exotic animal care scene, it will drive out the little guys, like him.

"But I don’t give up easy," he says firmly. "I’ll be fighting."

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