UTTERSON - Controversy is again clawing at the door of Guha’s Lions and Tigers Farm, after a lion nearly made a successful escape over the Civic Holiday long weekend.
A lion prowls its enclosure at Guha’s Lions and Tigers Farm in Utterson in Township of Muskoka Lakes in the winter of 2010.
Photo by Matt Driscoll
This newspaper began tracking the story after a trusted source in the community said police were called to the exotic animal zoo in Utterson on Aug. 6, saying that a lion had got loose. There was no formal announcement from police about the incident until Bracebridge OPP spokesman Const. Jim Reading was contacted on Thursday, Aug. 9. Reading then gave a brief statement in which he said the lion did escape, but that it was later corralled into a garage.
However, detachment commander Insp. Ed Medved said a few hours later that the animal never made it out of the cage.
“There was a real possibility that at Guha’s, one of the lions was going to escape, it was clawing its way underneath the cage,” he said.
Attempts to reach zoo owner Nanda Guha were unsuccessful by press time.
Medved said it appeared the lion was feeling the effects of the hot weather and was acting aggressively. He said police were called to attend, as they are often the “default agency” dispatched to deal with general emergency matters in Muskoka.
“The animal was managed by Guha, and corralled and locked and secured in a garage while repairs were done to the cage,” he said.
Medved said the OSPCA was then called to take a look at the circumstances under which the lion is kept.
OSPCA spokesperson Alison Cross confirmed that the organization was called to inspect Guha’s facility, but could not comment further about what they found. She said an inspection is different from an OSPCA investigation.
“An investigation is if we receive a cruelty complaint, an inspection allows us to go on the property and look things over to make sure everything’s OK,” she said.
One day after the incident, Ministry of Natural Resources spokesperson Yolanta Kowalski said ministry staff was also contacted by the Bracebridge OPP. Unless wild animals escape, she said it is not within the ministry’s mandate to respond to such incidents. She said the OPP was simply looking for advice on what could be done if they encounter similar situations in the future.
“They were wondering what they should do about it, and we told them basically that we don’t have the skills to tranquilize wild cats,” she said.
News of the near escape is a further blow to Guha’s reputation, which has been under increasing scrutiny since a 400-pound jaguar escaped from his property in 2008. It was reported at the time that the jaguar mauled Guha’s own pet dog before police shot and killed the cat, concerned that children returning home from school at the time would be at risk.
Guha later blamed the escape on animal rights activists that he said tampered with a fence.
Just one year before that, Ministry of Natural Resources officers seized a number of native animals in his care, including a pair of red foxes, two lynxes, two wolves and two wild turkeys.
While the Township of Muskoka Lakes currently has no bylaws forbidding ownership of exotic animals like jaguars or lions, the province’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act makes it illegal to keep native wildlife species as pets.
Though some of the charges against him were later dropped, Guha was eventually fined $500.
In July, Guha vehemently denied that a cougar that fatally mauled a nearby family’s white German shepherd was his. Through several media interviews in the weeks afterward, he claimed that his inventory of wild cats — consisting of six lions, one jaguar and two cougars — were all accounted for and that their cages were secure.
He did tell media at the time that a cougar in his care died in childbirth in June.
Cougars are not classified as native animals by the Ministry of Natural Resources.
The family that owned the German shepherd have said they get along well with Guha, and that they are convinced the cougar did not come from his property. In the weeks following the attack, Guha also opened his zoo to reporters.
Muskoka Lakes is the only municipality in Muskoka without an exotic animal bylaw. Because provincial laws are silent on the ownership of exotic animals, it is up to each individual municipality in the province to decide for itself whether residents can own exotic animals as pets.
Although facilities that keep native animals require a special licence and documentation, exotic animal owners don’t need any sort of paperwork in Muskoka Lakes.
However both township council and staff say they are currently looking to plug that legal loophole with a new bylaw. Outgoing township CAO Walt Schmid said the proposed bylaw will be amended to include cougars in the list of animals that cannot be owned as pets within the township.
If approved, council would need to pass a bylaw exemption for Guha’s Lions and Tigers to allow it to continue to operate.