Is a zoo the best place for abandoned crocodiles?


A Kelowna-based crocodile ‘zoo’ that just got non-profit status a few weeks ago after being run as a private business since 2002 is considering a move to Kamloops.

Owner Doug Illman said recently CrocTalk is struggling financially — expenses are around $8,000 a month to feed 20 or so crocodiles and an African serval cat — and the facility’s location off the beaten path makes it tougher to draw visitors.

He has tried to get financial support in Kelowna but hasn’t succeeded. He’s been in talks with the B.C. Wildlife Park on the east end of Kamloops and there has been some interest. However, last month, the BCWP board rejected the idea of the two ventures joining up.

Illman hasn’t lost hope. He thinks the board just needs to see a full-scale presentation and realize that he wouldn’t be asking them for a dime and they’ll sign on.

His plan is to raise $3 million for a new facility that would be attached to the main BCWP building, but which would function independently of the wildlife park. The two would attract their own audiences, but could also see some overlap of visitors. Sort of a two-for-one deal.

"It would be an opportunity for our facility and our educational program here to continue with a longer life span for us as well as having property along the highway,” he said.

CrocTalk was built on people who thought it was a good idea to take home a cute baby crocodile, somehow not realizing it would grow into a large reptile with an equally large appetite. Illman calls it a rescue, although it’s one that puts the animals on display and also takes some of them out to birthday parties.

Hopefully none of the kids at those parties get the idea it would be great to have a croc of their own. Kind of defeats the purpose.

CrocTalk has zoo credentials and Illman has been working with the animals for decades.

Regardless of where CrocTalk ends up, the organization raises concerns from people who don’t want to see animals in captivity, versus what rescue agencies are all about.

If CrocTalk didn’t exist, the creatures it houses would probably have been euthanized at a vet clinic or dumped on a lakeside only to die slowly in ecosystems they aren’t adapted for.

But putting them on display means they spend their lives in ‘prison,’ being pointed at while stuck in a relatively small space with nothing to do. I’m not sure what crocodiles in the wild do for fun, although they’re probably in survival mode almost perpetually.

What do you do with crocodiles that have been born in captivity to be sold as novelty pets when they are no longer wanted?

There are many types and sizes of crocodiles, but some can live 70 or 80 years or more. Illman also has some tortoises, which also have long lifespans.

He had two African cats — a caracal and a serval cat. The caracal died last summer, and the serval is not going to be displayed any more, he said.

The B.C. Wildlife Park has said it wants to promote indigenous animals, not exotics like Illman’s collection. From CrocTalk’s standpoint, putting the two side by side makes sense.

Both organizations are keeping animals in pens and cages that have been rescued; most of the animals at the wildlife park were orphaned or injured.

They’re also both ‘prisons’ for animals that otherwise would have probably died if left on their own. If they joined up, perhaps they would be able to raise more money to expand rehabilitation services for injured animals, and make their current cages larger.

It’s a damned if you do, damned if you don’t kind of situation. Illman was smart in turning his business into a non-profit organization so he can at least seem less like he’s after money when he asks for donations. People are reluctant to donate to a private business, regardless of what it is.

In a perfect world, there wouldn’t be homeless crocodiles in Canada in the first place. Exotic pet bans are slow in coming but are needed because there are always those who want a ‘pet’ that’s unique and different, like somehow that makes the owner unique and different, too.

Illman is hoping if the BCWP deal doesn’t come through that perhaps the City of Kamloops will give him some land for CrocTalk to set up in a high-profile location here. That’s pushing things too far; it’s not up to Kamloops taxpayers to start supporting an operation that has existed in Kelowna for 26 years.

But if he can strike a deal with the wildlife park, it might be the best solution for both. As long as he doesn’t expect a free ride from Kamloops City Hall or residents.

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