Despite pushback, snakes and spiders make their way to Wellington
When Marc Cunningham debuted Wild Zoo Parties in February, he knew he would get some pushback. After all, this isn’t his first rodeo, so to speak.
The first pushback came from his parents. As a small child, Cunningham developed an interest in amphibians and reptiles. He would capture frogs and turtles and try to bring them home.
“I’ve always been interested in animals. Ever since I was a little kid I would go and catch frog and try to bring home turtles and my parents would always let me know I can’t do that,” says Cunningham.
Growing up, he had a friend whose parents, more permissive than his own, allowed him to keep more exotic pets, and they bonded over their passion.
“We went to the Toronto Zoo, and saw one of these educational presentations by one of the zookeepers there,” says Cunningham. “We started asking a lot of questions, and I guess it was questions young kids wouldn’t normally ask.”
The zookeeper, recently retired Tom Mason, took notice of their interest. Later, when he saw the boys walking around the zoo, he invited them to see a little more.
“He brought us into one of the back rooms at the Toronto Zoo and he showed us a lot of stuff and it was really exciting. He showed us fox snakes, which are really cool local snakes,” says Cunningham. “Just tons of interesting animals that blew my mind completely. After that it was a matter of me going home and using money from lemonade stands and selling basketball cards to buy animals, bring them into my house and hide them from my parents.”
That didn’t last long. His parents were initially upset upon discovering Cunningham’s collection, but as they started to see how serious he was about taking care of these lessthan- cuddly creatures, they began to make concessions.
By the time he was 15 years old, he had run his first educational animal show and talk. Cunningham’s brother, who was five at the time, had told his teacher about his older sibling’s hobby collecting unusual pets, and the teacher invited him in to show and tell about the snakes, spiders and reptiles in his collection.
Since leaving school, Cunningham has started and run three businesses that include animal shows as a component. The first, Next Year Reptiles, was connected to his pet store business in Hamilton. When he sold the shop, the reptile show went with it.
Then he helped a friend start up an educational animal show with a focus on birds. That business was linked to an aviary in the city.
But last year was a rough one for Cunningham. First his house burnt down, then his father died. He decided to move to Trenton, where his family lives, to be closer to them. He finished off the year on a good note, opening his second pet store, Tyrannosaurus Pets, in downtown Belleville in November.
Cunningham says his father was part of his motivation for pushing into his unusual line of work.
“My dad was a driving force for it becoming a business,” says Cunningham, recalling that his father had tried to steer him toward a more traditional career path when he was a teenager. He persisted, though. “When I had my first store in Hamilton, he come down and checked it out and said, ‘okay, I was wrong.’”
Since that first reaction, his parents have been more supportive.
Once Tyrannosaurus Pets was up and running, Cunningham debuted Wild Zoo parties, offering educational travelling shows. Almost immediately requests for booking began to flow in, many of those coming from the County. Cunningham was booked for shows at the library, at Hillier’s Park Day and other public events, along with a series of birthday parties, celebrations and other private events.
“What we tend to do at a fair or festival is we’ll have one animal out at a time, we’ll talk a little bit about it with people individually, and then we’ll direct them to when our next show time is,” Cunningham says, explaining the shows. “We’re one part education, one part entertainment and one part interaction. I think all of those components are really important in order to get our message across and get people to think positively about these animals that we love and to build their support for what we do.”
There was a slight problem. Some of the stars of his show, including tarantulas and the popular ball python, are prohibited in the County under a bylaw barring exotic animals from being owned or displayed. Cunningham had to apply for exemption. The show would have gone on without that exemption, but it would be missing something.
“If we did not get approved, we’d be bringing things like smaller snakes, lizards, we would have parrots that would be available to come to shows, turtles, tortoises, frogs, salamanders, other amphibians, other invertebrates—not tarantulas, obviously,” says Cunningham. “In addition to that we have the cuter stuff—bunnies and chinchillas—those kind of guys that are really friendly and a lot more accepted than the reptiles.”
But Cunningham says it’s the less cuddly animals, the ones like spiders and snakes that inspire irrational fears in many people in his audience, who should be the most visible. They need advocacy.
Many of Cunningham’s show animals are rescues, adopted from municipal animal control agencies who would have destroyed seized illegally acquired animals if they couldn’t find an appropriate home.
“The tarantula and the snakes—those are people’s biggest fears,” says Cunningham. “In the years that I’ve done this, we’ve seen people be absolutely terrified, but within hours of meeting them, getting over their fears. I think it’s really important for people to be able to be exposed to these things and realize they’re not dangerous, they’re not scary… The reason I feel those animals should be included is so people can get exposure to them and realize these are things we should care about, in terms of conservation, in terms of being allowed to keep them as pets, should we want to.”
Two dedicated animal lovers disagreed. Annette McIntosh and Angela Lammes attended every meeting of council in which the bylaw exemption was discussed. They submitted letters and gave deputations expressing their concern for the animals and the potential for spreading bacteria like salmonella as little hands handle them.
“This is the 21st century, and trucking exotic animals and reptiles around the countryside is just not right or acceptable,” Lammes said to council during one meeting.
Their concern convinced council to defer the application for exemption, despite staff recommending against it. But on June 13, armed with more information, council gave Cunningham the green light, provided he inform staff each time an animal not permitted by the County’s bylaw was brought to a show.
“Advocating for animals is a noble, honourable thing. I have a lot of respect for them for standing up and trying to give voices to the voiceless,” says Cunningham. “I don’t agree with everything they’re saying, but it’s true that there are a lot of animals that are exploited, unsustainably harvested from the wild. There are a lot of people who own animals that they should not own. So I do agree with a lot of the things that they’re saying.”
Cunningham held his first County show on Saturday, June 17 at the Wellington library.