City councillors in London, Ont., want more information before they vote on a bylaw exemption that’s been requested by Reptilia, which will soon open a reptile zoo and conservation centre in the city’s west end.
Despite previous opposition from city council, Reptilia obtained a building permit earlier this year that allowed it to set up shop in Westmount Mall, where the zoo is expected to open in early 2023.
In 2011, city council removed zoning for privately-owned zoos, meaning those looking to open a zoo in London would need council’s approval.
Reptilia attempted to do just that in 2018 through a pair of motions that failed to garner councillor support: one to have staff gather public feedback and information about zoos and mobile zoos in London; and another to have staff craft a draft amendment to business licence by-law L-131-16 to regulate zoos, fairs, exhibitions and circuses.
On Tuesday, Reptilia appeared before the Community and Protective Services (CAPS) committee to request an exemption to London’s Animal Control By-law.
The bylaw prohibits the ownership and display of animals “normally found in a wild and natural state.” Referred to as Class 7 Animals under the bylaw, this includes, but is not limited to, crocodiles, alligators, venomous snakes and venomous lizards.
The request was subject to more than an hour’s worth of discussion from members of the public speaking before the committee, including Brian Child and Robert Murphy, Reptilia’s president and director of animal welfare, respectively.
The two touted the zoo’s safety record over its 26-year history, with facilities in Vaughan and Whitby, and spoke of the entertainment and education value it would bring to London.
Leo Longo, a lawyer representing McCor Management Inc., which manages Westmount Mall, spoke of the shopping centre’s support for Reptilia’s sought-after bylaw exemption, adding that Westmount views the zoo as a positive for the city.
Longo told the CAPS committee that in his legal opinion, Reptilia is already exempt from the Animal Control By-law “as it operates under a provincial license.”
Section 3.6 of the bylaw, which Longo cited, states, “this by-law shall not apply to animals maintained in a public park, zoo, fair, exhibition or circus operated or licensed by a municipal or other governmental authority.”
Eleven of the 15 speakers at Tuesday’s meeting spoke out against the zoo’s request for a bylaw exemption.
“I ask you to stick with the previous decisions of council, they were here just months ago,” said Marie Blosh, the vice-chair of London’s Animal Welfare Community Advisory Committee.
“Zoos are a pain for humane societies because they have a poor record within their organizations of adhering to their own poor standards,” added Joris Van Daele, the former director and chair of the London Humane Society, which is now Humane Society London and Middlesex.
Scott Tinney, a staff lawyer for Toronto-based advocacy group Animal Justice, warned allowing the exemption would set a precedent that prevents council from restricting Reptilia in the future. He also pushed back on the claim that Reptilia’s provincial licensing made it exempt from the Animal Control By-law.
“A wide variety of the animals kept at Reptilia are non-native animals and therefore beyond the jurisdiction of the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act and thus not the subject of the existing provincial license,” Tinney said.
Councillors on the CAPS committee, as well as a number of visiting councillors, spent another two hours debating the exemption. While councillors don’t have the power to pass bylaws at the committee level, they are allowed to endorse certain actions, which are then sent to full city council for final approval.
Ward 12 Coun. Elizabeth Peloza and Ward 13 Coun. David Ferreira spoke out against allowing the exemption, while fellow committee members Ward 4 Coun. Susan Stevenson and Ward 5 Coun. Jerry Pribil encouraged colleagues to support Reptilia’s request.
A motion from Ferreira to have the committee endorse taking no action on the matter failed, and Stevenson then brought forward a motion to endorse granting Reptilia an exemption to the Animal Control By-law. Stevenson’s motion was written by Ward 10 Coun. Paul Van Meerbergn, who wasn’t allowed to put forward the motion himself as he doesn’t sit on the CAPS committee.
Ferreira eventually gained the support of his colleagues when he put forward an amendment to attach a report from city staff to the bylaw exemption which would explore the implications of such an exemption, as well as other options available for council.
Committee members voted 4-1 in favour of endorsing the amended motion, with Ferreira, Peloza, Pribil and Ward 7 Coun. Corrine Rahman all voting yes. Stevenson, who told colleagues, “this seems quite different than my motion that I put forward,” was the lone opponent, while Mayor Josh Morgan, the committee’s sixth member, was absent from Tuesday’s meeting.
This means CAPS committee would be presented with a draft bylaw exemption, along with staff report to detail what this means, during a future meeting in January.
The move still requires final approval from full city council when the group meets on Dec. 13.
— with files from Global’s Jacquelyn LeBel.