Saint John zoo goes silent, city still looking for long-term plan for property

·4 min read
Aslan the African lion is loaded into a crate on June 2, 2021 for the drive to his temporary home at the Granby Zoo in Quebec.  (Submitted by Erin Brown - image credit)
Aslan the African lion is loaded into a crate on June 2, 2021 for the drive to his temporary home at the Granby Zoo in Quebec. (Submitted by Erin Brown - image credit)

Tucked away on the periphery of Saint John's Rockwood Park, Cherry Brook Zoo was once home to everything from alpacas to zebras.

For decades, the zoo was alive with the roar of lions and, for a time, the unmistakable "song" of Gina the gibbon.

Since April 2020, when the zoo announced that it would close after nearly 46 years, the property has gradually gone quiet as zoo staff eventually found new homes for its 80 inhabitants. The last of the animals, four big cats and two snakes, left last year.

For the zoo's former executive director, Martha McDevitt, the silence was deafening.

"So as the animals left, it was just kind of getting quieter and quieter, so it was feeling depressing," she said.

The final silence was symbolic for former zookeeper Erin Brown.

Submitted by Erin Brown
Submitted by Erin Brown

"The zoo was somewhere that I had gone when I was a kid," she said.

"I grew up in Saint John, so the Cherry Brook Zoo was always a fixture in my life because I've always been an animal lover. And seeing those cats leave was seeing the Cherry Brook Zoo leave as well."

Once the tigers left on May 5, and the lions on June 2, 2021, the zoo was truly silenced.

The city is left with a 30-acre parcel of land along Foster Thurston Drive on the periphery of Rockwood Park — with no concrete plans for it.

So last March, the city invited expressions of interest in the property.

Graham Thompson/CBC
Graham Thompson/CBC

John MacKenzie, a councillor for Ward 2, which includes the zoo site, said the city received some viable ideas, but he said it's too early to reveal any more details than that.

"All I can say publicly to you is that the city's moved forward with site preparation for the possibility of something that may be confirmed in the spring if everything falls into place."

According to the invitation from the city for expressions of interest, the 30-acre parcel of land "is currently fenced and has several shelter structures and two, year-round buildings."

Many of the animal structures have been torn down and removed to make way for future development, and to make it more appealing to prospective developers, explained MacKenzie.

Watch | In January 2021, two tigers, two lions and two snakes were the only animals left at the zoo

"As part of a significant, naturally landscaped space near urban areas of the City, this site is viewed by the City as having great potential for outdoor recreational activities that would contribute to more meaningful utilization of this area by the general public and the local economy," states the invitation.

The document also makes it pretty clear that the city has no interest in supporting the project financially. It specifically said the city is looking for someone with experience and "the financial capacity to establish and operate independently of support from the City."

Another campground?

MacKenzie has long hoped for some kind of outdoor activity that will draw tourists to the area.

He said it would be preferable to have something that falls under the existing zoning umbrella of "parkland."

He's previously floated the idea of turning the park into a campground, beyond the trailer park Rockwood Park now offers, and that idea still appeals to him.

"That would be preferable, but I mean, if you get a really good idea and it does have to change the zoning, I guess that would have to be done, but … you don't change the zoning on something like that for just any project," said MacKenzie.

Big cats have temporary homes, held up by red tape

When the zoo announced it would close for good in 2020, there were 80 animals — from 35 different species — living there. Brown oversaw the vetting of potential new homes for the animals, making sure they would be safe and well cared for.

They had a number of farm-type animals, like miniature donkeys, goats and pigs that went to hobby farms, mostly in New Brunswick.

The more exotic animals, however, required a bit more work. They are at new homes from Nova Scotia to Vancouver.

Graham Thompson/CBC
Graham Thompson/CBC

The big cats were the hardest to rehome. Brown eventually heard from officials at Popcorn Park in New Jersey, which is part zoo, part sanctuary. The facility agreed to take the lions, and they lined up a new home for the tigers, since it already has a number of tigers.

Although the complicated approval process to transfer the cats is nearing completion, the Saint John facility couldn't continue to house the cats. That's when the Granby Zoo in Quebec stepped in to temporarily house them.

Brown said last year's transfer went smoothly and the lions and tigers have settled in well in their temporary home near the American border.

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