Little Ray’s hopes fundraiser will cover shortfalls as pandemic threatens Hamilton reptile centre

Ray Goulet, founder and owner of Little Ray's Nature Centre, says they are hanging on by the skin of their teeth after being closed to the public for 10 of the past 22 months. Google Maps

The founder of Canada’s largest exotic animal rescue says his business is “hanging in there” but will need more than an easing of public health measures in February to keep the doors open.

Ray Goulet of Little Ray’s Nature Centre says the COVID-19 pandemic not only closed the wildlife centre for 10 of the past 22 months but has put significant strain on a large arm of its revenue, organized events.

“The public paying admission to come to see our facilities is less than four per cent of our gross revenue,” Goulet told 900 CHML’s Hamilton Today.

“It’s the classroom programs, it’s the festivals, it’s the museum exhibits.”

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For the second year in a row, it looks like the organization will miss out on two of the three months that generate a large part of its takings: January and February.

Goulet says about 60 per cent of revenue for the Hamilton and Ottawa operations is made during the first three months of every year.

“The good news is, we’re still here. It might be by the skin of our teeth, but we’re still here,” Goulet said.

The Waterloo native got a taste for the rescue business in 1995 and educational events as a platform to support the animals he was caring for.

The passion would lead to his exit from Scotiabank in 1998 to open Little Ray’s Reptile Zoo in Ottawa by 2000. The business would expand to Hamilton in 2013 and a branch that does exhibits and shows in the United States.

Unlike Canada, the latter operation has been able to generate positive revenue due to lighter COVID-19 restrictions stateside that have allowed for exhibits.

Revenues north of the border are down 76 per cent amid the pandemic, with operational costs only dropping only seven per cent.

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So far, $450,000 in public donations has been received for its Canadian facilities but $1.5 million has been borrowed to keep up care of the zoo’s estimated 900 animals.

Unlike most businesses affected by the pandemic, Little Ray’s has closed down but not shut down since employees still have to go to work.

The centre is in the midst of trying to raise another $500,000 to keep the lights on at the Hamilton and Ottawa operations through a GoFundMe campaign.

Little Ray’s predicament is not new to Ontario Chamber of Commerce boss Rocco Rossi, who says tens of thousands of businesses in the province are also “hanging on by their fingernails.”

He says the latest round of aid, a $10,000 grant for small businesses from the Ford government, won’t help those that have stayed on the sidelines through the first few months of the new year.

“If this extends from a couple of weeks into multiple weeks, that’s a joke amount for the costs that are being incurred and the opportunities that have been lost,” Rossi said.

Hamilton’s chamber head Keanin Loomis says the entity continues to do more advocacy at Queen’s Park and in Ottawa this month in terms of supports for the city’s businesses but reaction has been slow.

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“The restrictions came down quite quickly, but the business supports have been slow to follow…. That has been frustrating,” Loomis said.

Those restrictions will be eased incrementally starting on Jan. 31 followed by two more rounds in February and March. The next window, which allows for social gathering limits of 10 people indoors and 25 people outdoors, won’t be of significant help to Goulet.

The Feb. 21 alteration is the one he’s eyeing, when limits expand to 25 people indoors, 100 people outdoors.

Goulet says with reserves gone, he hopes the fundraiser will create some sort of buffer between now and late February when he hopes to get his shows back on the road.

“So we’re trying to get to a point where we have some buffer that we can actually breathe,” Goulet said.

“If there’s any other emergencies pop up, we think that the province is going to come through with some money through the minister of tourism, heritage, tourism, sports and culture.”

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