Exotic animal rescue crowdfunding to keep heat lamps on in Ottawa, Hamilton during COVID-19 pandemic

Paul Goulet, co-founder of Little Ray's Nature Centre, says he doesn't usually ask for support, but the coronavirus pandemic has put the 800-plus animals in his care at risk. Photo provided by Little Ray's

An exotic animal rescue tasked with feeding and heating more than 800 animals across Ontario is turning to the public to help care for its critters amid a complete business shutdown during the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Little Ray’s Nature Centres is hoping to raise $50,000 in a GoFundMe campaign to help cover hydro bills, purchase food and pay veterinary staff at its two major centres in Ottawa and Hamilton.

The business launched 25 years ago in Ottawa as a reptile zoo but has grown since then to claim the title of North America’s largest exotic animal rescue.

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Most of the centres’ animals, split roughly 50-50 between Ottawa and Hamilton, are reptiles, amphibians and invertebrates, though Little Ray’s counts a few mammals and birds among its inhabitants.

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In addition to on-site visits, the nature centre often tours schools, museums and science centres to offer educational programming as a primary source of income.

With Ontario’s economy locked down and educational institutions closed to the public since mid-March, Little Ray’s has been saddled with soaring animal care costs and zero sources of income.

“We are completely shut down,” says Paul Goulet, who founded the business with his wife, Sheri.

The Little Ray’s team saw the pandemic’s impact on the business looming on the horizon back in March, which is typically the company’s busiest month of the year.

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March break usually kicks off Little Ray’s busy spring and summer seasons, but as schools and science centres started to cancel their bookings, the reptile rescuers knew they would have to scale back significantly to make it through the dry spell.

While its workforce varies seasonally, Little Ray’s employs more than 100 people over the course of the year.

With the majority of its part-time and seasonal staff laid off, the rescue centre is keeping just its veterinary staff on payroll.

“We are trying desperately to keep as many of our people employed as we can right now,” Goulet says.

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While the GoFundMe campaign will help to pay essential staff, a significant chunk will go towards the hydro bills at the two nature centres, where keeping the power running makes a significant difference in the lives of cold-blooded critters.

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The diversity of animals in Little Ray’s care makes effective temperature control an invaluable asset.

“We almost have a battle that goes on between heat lamps and air conditioning in the building,” Goulet says.

Ontario’s early stage reopening plans have allowed some outdoor-oriented businesses to gradually resume operations, but unlike a traditional zoo, Little Ray’s offers an almost entirely indoor experience.

Goulet anticipates Little Ray’s will be able to open in the same wave as museums and science centres in the province.

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The nature centres received $40,000 in relief when the federal government began rolling out its emergency initiatives in early April, and Little Ray’s has been working with the Business Development Bank of Canada on longer-term solutions for the nature centres, but Goulet tells Global News the animal rescue business doesn’t exactly rake in dollars even in ideal seasons.

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“There are no margins. People don’t do this for money,” he says. “We’re going to have to replace months of revenue.”

On top of its own mouths to feed, Little Ray’s has been fielding requests from organizations in British Columbia, Alberta, Nova Scotia, Quebec and elsewhere in Ontario to take on an additional 40 to 50 animals as resources grow scarce across the country.

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While he notes he’s not one to usually ask for help, Goulet stresses that any funds derived from the GoFundMe will go directly to animal care expenses, not to executive salaries.

Any extra money raised past the $50,000 goal will likely be put into an emergency fund to care for additional animals, should Ontario’s pet stores or other organizations be unable to support their critters.

At the time of writing, Little Ray’s campaign had raised $4,360.

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