Vancouver Aquarium meets Science World in planned Surrey facility

SURREY — As a child, the only technology Gary Oliver had was a black-and-white TV.

He recalls faithfully watching Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom as a youngster, inspiring him to spend his life studying, rescuing and working with animals. And he hopes the technology of today will inspire children to do the same.

Oliver, who started both Cinemazoo and the Urban Safari Rescue Society, is in the early planning stages for a high-tech ecology centre he hopes will be located in Surrey.

Think Vancouver Aquarium meets Science World.

"Kids today are losing touch with what’s happening with the world around them. They’re into their iPads and iPods," Oliver said. "If you ask kids to name as many different products as they can, they’ll name over a thousand products they could probably think of. You ask them to name five songbirds and they’re stumped. I’ve had kids in grade school ask what a songbird is."

He said if even two or three kids take an interest in conservation as a result of the would-be ecology centre, then it’s a worthwhile project.

"And the only way we’re going to reach these kids is by using what they’re so familiar with – the technology of today."

Oliver’s enlisted the help of an engineer who worked on Science World, and said he’s come up with some brilliant ideas to revolutionize the way kids can learn through technology.

In a nutshell, the facility would ramp up things the organization does already in terms of rescue efforts and educational programming, and tie in technology, as well as entertainment. There’s even been interest from the Rainforest Café, Oliver added.

Even in the current cramped South Surrey facility, Oliver already attracts people from all over the world.

"We probably do about 10 to 15 tours a day," he noted. "We get people from all over the world even in this little place we’ve got now, with my adult career course, I have people come from all over the world. From Australia, from Sweden, Germany, England, even the states. With a proper facility, it’s going to really bring more of an international flavour."

Oliver guesses he’ll need about 10 acres of land for the venue, as there are plans for activities around the facility itself.

For example, Oliver would like to accommodate the film industry at the new site, which he’s worked in for 27 years.

“It will be another building on the property but it’ll be suited for the trucks to come in, and people can work with animals there. It will also be an attraction for the public because within the facility we’ll build a soundproof viewing area.”

And he said it’s time that the organization moves.

“We’re outgrowing this place already and we’ve only been here four years now,” he said of the South Surrey venue. Currently, a variety of programs are run out of the building, including a junior zoo keeping course, summer camps, adult career training courses, and Oliver travels putting on his Cinemazoo program, where he shows off many of the exotic animals he’s rescued. Last year, Oliver put on 450 educational shows.

He’s met with the City of Surrey about the proposed ecology centre, and he hopes the municipality will donate the land, or make a sweetheart deal, to get the project off the ground.

“I think all the city has offered so far is something to do with the lands,” he said. “As far as contributing financially to it, I don’t think they’re willing to do that. But that’s OK because we have some entrepreneurs and some corporations that have already expressed a definite interest in it.”

Some estimates have put the cost of the project at upwards of $50 million, Oliver noted.

“Once we get the city to sign off on the fact that they’re willing to contribute the land, then from there we will be going to these interested parties on investing.”

Laurie Cavan, Surrey’s manager of parks, recreation and culture, said the city had some "preliminary discussions" in 2013 with the group about the facility.

Cavan said the city is awaiting a business plan and expects there will be a meeting in the coming weeks to see how far along the project is in terms of a concept plan for the facility, business case and budget.

“I know they’re a very passionate group and certainly have a vision,” Cavan said.

Oliver is hopeful Surrey will commit, but noted he has had interest from other municipalities such as Abbotsford and Langley.

“I would personally like to see it stay in Surrey because I’ve been in Surrey for such a long time,” he said.

“We’ve been talking about it and talking about it. We’ve talked to all the politicians about it. And now we feel we really have something worthwhile…. It’s time to move on it.”

For more information on the Urban Safari Rescue Society visit Urbansafari.ca. As a registered non-profit society, the group is always in need of donations.

areid@thenownewspaper.com

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