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B.C. reptile rescue centre re-opening delayed, industry’s future questioned

Rebuild after fire faces hurdles, the few rescue centres remaining in B.C. face uncertain future
A fire at Urban Safari Rescue Society Saturday morning has killed several animals, according to the society’s social media posts. (Urban Safari Rescue Society/Facebook file photo)

After a fire destroyed a large portion of a South Surrey animal rescue society’s building and killed many of the creatures in its care nearly a year ago, the rebuilding process has been slow.

READ MORE: Fire kills ‘many’ animals at Urban Safari Rescue Society Saturday morning in South Surrey

“It has been the most frustrating year and 2024 is also uncertain,” said Sharon Doucette, executive director of Urban Safari Rescue Society.

“We have been in a holding pattern for months and it continues. We are waiting for our landlord and the city of Surrey building department to resolve permitting issues so the smoke-damaged room can be restored.”

On Jan. 28, 2023, Urban Safari experienced a devastating fire on a night when power outages affected parts of Surrey and Langley. During the night, the power came back on at the sanctuary. This caused a surge protector that was being used in a snake tank to become overpowered, resulting in a fire that filled the room.

About 60 animals — including reptiles, birds and sugar gliders — died in the fire, and another 15 passed soon afterward due to smoke inhalation.

Since the fire, the exotic animal rescue centre has been focused on rebuilding while the space remains closed to the public. The initial expectation was to reopen in September, then November, but Doucette said the permit application process for the centre has now kept the centre closed for nearly a year.

“Rebuilding after a fire can be a complex process spanning several months. The City and the building permit applicant for Urban Safari Rescue Society have been working since Spring 2023 to address outstanding permit deficiencies and the City will continue to support Urban Safari Rescue Society in securing a building permit to rebuild their structures and reopen their services to the community,” reads a statement from Surrey’s planning and development department.

READ MORE: Urban Safari Rescue Society re-opening delayed ‘many, many months’ after fire

A back-and-forth between the centre’s owner and the city has been going on for “many” months, Doucette said.

“The application is currently on hold until a structural engineer can be found who can produce a sealed letter stating there is no structural damage and provide measurements and a site plan for the building,” the executive director said.

Measurements for the half of the building that was damaged were provided to the city, but Doucette said they wanted the plan for the whole building. A letter from a structural engineer was also sent last spring, stating there was no structural damage to the exterior of the building, she added.

“But now they want another letter, stating there is no interior structural damage and it must include the engineer’s seal and be dropped off at the building department’s office. In other words it cannot be emailed. The city also wanted the side lean-to structure that protected the rabbits, pigs and pheasants from the rain demolished. That was done in the summer, so now they want a new site plan for the building.”

While the issues between the centre and the city get sorted, Doucette said operations at Urban Safari are being affected, with staff feeling like they are “stuck in the middle.”

“Frustrating in the extreme,” she added.

The rescue centre remains closed, but staff are still running their outreach education programs and are focusing on caring for the animals that remain, Doucette said.

“We are also not really able to take in surrendered animals. There are a few small species that we can take in, but not nearly the numbers we could take in before the fire.”

The next closest reptile rescue centre is located in Abbotsford, but the operations there are in limbo as well.

Wild Education centre’s Mike Hopcraft said that the location has been affected by Urban Safari’s year-long closure, but added they were seeing an influx of surrendered animals well before the fire.

“We’ve noticed an increase over the years. Last year in 2023, we took in 132 animals, which is a record,” Hopcraft said.

The Abbotsford location is the largest reptile rescue centre in all of Western Canada, according to its website, but it may end up closing this year.

“We thought we had five or six years there because that was what we were told when we moved in (but) three years later, they (the landlord) told us they’re selling the property. With the increased prices of literally everything, rentals — we’re trying to raise money but it’s not coming in. If we can’t raise money to move, this rescue will have to shut down,” Hopcraft said.

If that happens, the animals will have to be moved to locations across Canada, he said, since there are no other reptile rescue facilities in B.C.

“We don’t want to think that way yet, of course. We’d love to raise some money and keep it… One of the biggest reasons for animals coming in is the housing situation,” Hopcraft added, sharing an email that came in Tuesday morning (Jan. 9) that outlined the situation of a renter who has to find a new home.

The individual told Wildlife Education that finding a new home that is affordable for them is already a challenge, while finding one that allows pets is nearly impossible, meaning they must surrender their snake. The centre receives similar emails and phone calls regularly, Hopcraft said.

He added that while they do have space available, taking in more animals at this time is difficult.

“We’re at the place where it’s not a matter of making space, it’s a matter of I don’t want to take animals in if we’re not sure what our future’s going to be, because then it’s just more animals that we’re going to have to figure out where they go.”

More information on Wildlife Education can be found on their website

Sobia Moman

About the Author: Sobia Moman

Sobia Moman is a news and features reporter with the Peace Arch News.
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