The Animals at Cherry Brook Zoo Deserve Better

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Another year, another funding deficit at Atlantic Canada’s troubled Cherry Brook Zoo. This has been a constant for over a decade, a new year marked with the managers at Cherry Brook Zoo threatening to close or turn over the Zoo to the City of Saint John unless they get a funding increase.

The Zoo opened in 1978 on 35 acres of the 2220 acre Rockwood Park just outside of Saint John, New Brunswick. The relationship with the city, specifically around funding, has always been a strain. Park managers, couple Lynda Collrin and Leonard Collrin, who have lived in and run the park since its opening, stress this history each year; Lynda does not take a salary even as the Director of Zoo Development, Leonard now only takes a $30,000 salary as the Chief Administrative Director, they don’t own the property so they cannot leverage equity off of it and the buildings and upgrades they have made (although they would obviously never be able to afford the land). This year the City of Saint John has moved to a funding committee which has to decide how to divvy up $208,000 among all who apply for community grants. Last year the Zoo received $60,000 of funding, this year they originally applied for $100,000 – but had to decrease that amount to $60,000, the limit for the committee. Even if they are granted $60,000 – almost 1/3 of the entire community grant money for all of Saint John, Cherry Brook will still run a $40,000/year deficit. All of this with no long term viability to change their economic outlook – they still don’t own and cannot afford the land they run on, can barely pay any staff and are wholly reliant on some magic donor stepping in.

The Collrin’s place the Zoo’s operating budget at $450,00 a year, with them running a $100,000 deficit without funding from the City. If the City was to step in with $100,000, over 20% of the Zoo’s operating budget would be made up from the City of Saint John. Forget the fact that Saint John is completely cash strapped, covering any budget like that is not sustainable.

The desperate pleas that come each year from the Collrin’s are always tied to the Moncton Zoo, a jealous tale of two cities. What started there as a ragged petting zoo has now dwarfed Cherry Brook – Atlantic Canada’s first accredited facility. In 2012, the Federal Government stepped in with $300,000 for the Moncton Zoo, after decades of growing support and funding from the City. The Collrin’s yearly fundraising pitch of holding-animals-hostage and declaring the sky is falling has never been able to land such funds though. The 2014 funding crisis, the 2000 funding crisis, the documentary made about their endless funding crisis – all have been unsuccessful.

Outside of the funding issues, Cherry Brook has also seen an animal stolen from on site, witnessed animals die prematurely and had half of its board resign in 2011. Clearly, there are substantive issues with the sustainability and future of this park that are getting compounded by an endless funding crisis.

All of this has happened with hardly any critical or negative media coverage. Every story is always positioned to take the Collrin’s claims as honest and to position them sympathetically. The funding committee idea itself is a polite way of trying to pass the responsibility off as no one wants to publicly stand up and acknowledge that this is clearly not working and cannot go on. Does the City get to actually look at Cherry Brook’s books? Does the public? How are they feeding captive animals? If the Collrin’s live on site – who owns their house, pays for utilities/property taxes? Much is made of Cherry Brook being an accredited zoo – a member of the Canadian Association for Zoos and Aquariums – this is a paid membership body for zoo facilities. Who pays those dues? While on the topic, when was the last time the facility was inspected to ensure it operated on guidelines?

Once media starts travelling down this road, it’s also time to publicly acknowledge the main reasons why the Cherry Brook Zoo has floundered as the Moncton Zoo has grown; Cherry Brook has been dominated and run by the same couple for nearly 40 years – obviously caring people, but also people clearly incapable of building confidence. Moncton Zoo on the other hand has embraced a board structure and accepted the lack of control that comes with bringing in new partners and new funding. Cherry Brook is a glorified personal collection of animals, run for free on public land, subsidized by the public, so that two people can be surrounded by the animals who give their lives meaning. The story sounds great, but it is degrading into one on the depths of human selfishness as this couple are also losing grip on what is best for the animals in their care.

In the meantime, the neighbouring cities of Quispamsis and Rothesay have stepped in with $7,500 as the Collrin’s await the February decision on their funding from the City of Saint John. The Collrin’s submitted another urgent letter to the City of Saint John on January 5th that claims that without increased funding they will have to move to a seasonal operation, lay off more staff, possibly lose accreditation, and that their “succession plan” will be delayed. That succession plan would see the Collrin’s cede their power at the park and finally move off site. Lynda Collrin signed off on that letter “(volunteer unpaid)” – a clear sign that even if the Cherry Brook Zoo board finally gets it, she still doesn’t. Their social media pages are similarly desperate, looking more like a broke over sharing cousin than a business.

The entitlement of the Collrin’s is an interesting story in the decline of not just their facility, but of the captive animal (zoo) industry as a whole – these people seem to feel entitled to these animals and reality is striking hard. From the SeaWorld board room, to Collrin’s little Cherry Brook Zoo, people are getting a reminder that the trade in wild animals is just as unpredictable as the animals themselves. The Collrin’s yearly fundraising strategies are failing against the nagging feeling that we can and should do better for these animals.

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