• Hunter Cresswell

Big problem at Little Ray's

Rescue zoo could close, leaving over 900 animals in need

The lives of 900 rescued exotic animals are at stake at Little Ray’s Nature Centre.

Centre founder and CEO Paul “Little Ray” Goulet of Chelsea is speaking out about the impact COVID-19, the insufficient government response to his struggling business, and the resulting impact on the lives of his animals and staff and other small businesses that are equally in peril.

“We’re fighting for our survival,” Goulet said.

Little Ray’s Nature Centre founder and CEO Paul “Little Ray” Goulet, seen here with a red footed tortoise while giving a presentation at the Brooklyn Children’s Museum in February 2020, lives in Chelsea and has spent the last 26 years rescuing, rehabilitating and caring for or rehoming exotic animals across Canada. He says it could all come to an end this year because of COVID-19 and the lack of government support. Photo courtesy Little Ray’s Nature Centre

On Feb. 9 he issued a press release citing inadequate support from the federal and provincial governments for suffering small businesses almost one year into the pandemic.

Goulet founded Little Ray’s Nature Centre in April 1995 and has rescued, rehabilitated and rehomed between 6,000 to 7,000 exotic animals across Canada in that time.

Goulet usually employs around 100 people, but has cut that down to just 23 staff to care for the animals through these lean pandemic times.

“The larger festivals we do and the museum exhibits were really what funded the rescue efforts,” he said.

Visits to the two Little Ray’s Nature Centres in Ottawa and Hamilton only account for 6.5 per cent of overall revenue.

“I take pride in never asking for support,” he said. “We never asked for help. I can assure you, this has cost my wife and I hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

But to stay afloat until next summer, he said he would have to borrow over $2 million.

It costs $85,000 in monthly expenses to cover staffing and feeding, housing and caring for the animals, about 400 of which no one else in Canada has the means or expertise to house or care for, according to Goulet.

The pandemic shut down all three businesses – the two centres in Ottawa and Hamilton and the parent company – and they’ve had to borrow about $900,000 since March 2020.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Little Ray’s has received from the federal government: $400,000 in federal funding through the wage subsidy program, about $80,000 from the federal rent subsidy, about $180,000 split evenly between three Canadian emergency business account loans for each of his businesses, and a $730,000 federal regional relief fund loan.

That’s considerably more than what he said he’s received from Ontario, however. From that province, Goulet said he has received “nominal” support for the monthly electricity bill and is waiting to hear back about three provincial grants that he hopes will total around $60,000, if they come through.

Despite getting more dollars from the federal government than from Ontario, he said he’s still more upset with the feds — the last straw for Goulet was the announcement of the newest federal support loan program.

“It has the worst terms of any program for any sector,” he said about the loans now available to the highly-affected sectors of tourism and hospitality, the category his centres fall into.

He said they offer no forgiveness when paying back and a four per cent interest rate after being interest free for the first year. Goulet said these terms are insulting compared to the better terms in the other loans Little Ray’s has received, which offer forgiveness on portions of the loan if a certain amount is paid back and longer periods of no interest.

Pontiac MP Will Amos said he sympathizes with his fellow Chelsea resident Goulet, but that his business case is unique because the business is so unique.

“I feel Mr. Goulet’s frustration and disappointment because they’ve built so much over so many years and it’s a tremendous business,” Amos said.

He added that every 10 relief dollars in Canada comes directly from the federal government and its programs, and that it may be time for the [Ontario] province to step up.

“I have always demonstrated a willingness to advocate and work with Little Ray’s to get them funding, which Mr. Goulet acknowledged on his social media,” Amos said.

And he said he’s still willing to continue to advocate for Goulet and the animals at Little Ray’s.

“There are businesses like Little Ray’s that need more help and the provinces – in this case Ontario – needs to step up,” Amos added.

But that isn’t a comfort for Goulet.

“I find it offensive that they try to defend it. I find it offensive that they don’t see this as a massive problem,” Goulet said.

He said that he isn’t happy with the Ontario government’s support either and has been vocal against Premier Doug Ford’s response, which he said favours the operation of corporate chains over mom-and-pop businesses. But Goulet said he also recognizes that the federal government has more money to use to offer support compared to Ontario, so he holds the feds to a higher standard.

“From the beginning, I’ve listened to the prime minister say [his government] would be here for all small businesses. The feds are holding all the programs and all the money.

They’re doing more to protect the banks and the economy than us [small businesses],” Goulet said.

As for their own situation, Goulet said that he anticipates the company won’t earn a positive net revenue until at least June 2022.

He said that they aren’t closing shop yet, but have stopped some of their usual services.

“If someone calls, we say, ‘Sorry, we can’t do rescues right now,’” Goulet explained.

“We are the backstop for all levels of government of Canada,” he later added. “Who do you think the city of Ottawa calls when there’s a boa [constrictor] loose in a building? Us.”

He’s been brought to tears thinking of his animals’ lives being at risk because of the effects of the pandemic.

The worst case scenario for those animals isn’t pretty. If the two centres have to shut down, they would be taken into the care of the province, which, according to Goulet, doesn’t have the expertise to care for all these animals, so they would likely be euthanized.

“We have enough money to make it to June,” Goulet said, later adding, “If that Ottawa location closes, a small piece of me will die.”

How to help

“The outpouring of support has been huge,” Goulet said about how people have reacted and reached out since he went public with his situation.

A GoFundMe.com online crowd-sourced fundraiser for Little Ray’s has raised $186,210 toward its goal of $840,000. Donate at gofundme.com/f/little-rays-exotic-animal-rescue.

A bottle drive has netted the nature centre over 10 truckloads of bottles and cans. The drive is over, but was so successful that Goulet said they will launch a virtual ‘bottle drive’ this week to allow people to donate, even if it’s only a small amount of money.

“10,000 people donating just a dollar each? That is a very powerful message to our elected officials,” he said.

People can also support the centre by buying merchandise or adopting animals through the online store at lrnc.co.

Goulet said more programs and opportunities for people to support Little Ray’s will be announced in the coming weeks on their website and social media.

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