A Unique Zoo Story
The story began in May of 1960 when former Forest Ranger now Municipal Policeman and lover of nature, Mr. Ghislain Gagnon, dreamed of starting up a zoo in St-Félicien. He was so enthusiastic that he managed to convince six other people to join him: Yvon Castonguay, Jean-Marie Gagnon, Marcel Hudon, Marcel Lefebvre, Alexandre Tremblay and Jean-Paul “Pit” Tremblay. Together, they made the impossible possible: they transformed a former fox farm into a zoo. Located in the South entrance to the City of St-Félicien, this land was graciously lent by Mr. Haldaige Laflamme.
On July 17th 1960, the new Zoo opened its doors and attracted over 22,000 visitors in only three months. This great achievement was made possible by the tenacity, devotion and forward thinking of the seven (7) promoters. The Zoo already counted 160 animals to interest the visitors. At that time, the entry price was 25¢, the assets totalized $4000 and the gross revenue of the year was $2300. This first success paved the way to more concrete projects.
In November of 1960, joined by a new member, Mr. Maurice Lamontagne as director and legal counselor, the promoters began negotiations to buy Île-aux-Berdard. At the same time, they created a non-profit organization under the name St-Félicien Zoological Society Foundation inc.’ (Fondation de la Société zoologique de St-Félicien inc) which was registered on January 4th 1961.
Île-aux-Bernard is a picturesque location which gives the Zoo an appropriate and incomparable canvas. The rivière-aux-saumons feeds the vast lands and flows by the Zoo entrance. A sweeping land of beautiful wooded areas borders the rivière-aux-saumons and the Ashuapmouchouan River and surrounds the general territory owned by the Zoological Society.
On February 7th 1961, the Society purchased Île-aux-Bernard and 24 acres of land from Mr. Paul E. Gagnon of compagnie Gagnon Ltd for the price of $12,000 without interest with $500 payments per year. A generous price on behalf of Mr. Gagnon.
Beginning of work was made possible by subsidies but $10,000 more was needed. This difficulty was countered by community solidarity. The amount was raised by each borrowing $500 from 19 people from a family-owned St-Félicien business. Later on, these debts were converted into pure and simple donations.
List of the lenders, March 1961 :
Dr. Roméo Banville, Mr. Albert Blouin, Mr. Égide Boivin (priest), Mr. Arthur Brassard, Mr. Florimond Côté, Dr. Wilfrid Dumas, Mr. Roland Gagnon, Mr. Jules Grenier, Mr. Alfred Hamel, Mr. Paul Hamel, Mr. Charles-Émile Laberge, Mr. Jean-Louis Lamontagne, Mrs. L-W. Leclerc, Mr. Paul Leclerc, Mr. Pascal Savard, Mr. Aurélien Talbot, Mr. Georges Tessier, Mr. J.-Adrien Tremblay, Mr. Jules Tremblay and the Jos Dufresne & Fils Ltd company.
At its beginning, the Zoo of St-Félicien acquired both indigenous and exotic animals, such as: black bear, lama, white-tailed deer, grey wolf, red fox, lion and seal. Added to this list was a collection of various bird and primate species.
On June 4th 1961, the Zoo was officially inaugurated and blessed by Priest Egide boivin. Later on, many years of work changed the face of the Zoo. The arrival of a polar Bear couple on March 31st 1962 marked an important event in the Zoo’s history and attracted numerous visitors. Their 190 square meter cage was built on the rivière-aux-saumons shore.
In 1963, the Zoological Society purchased a 21-acre plot of land and built a cervidae paddock which welcomed the first moose. There were also many other important construction projects, one of which was the large 9m X 18m X 7.6m aviary. The various building and paddock creation allowed for an increase in the animal collection, here are a few examples: cougar, chimpanzee, monkey and two (2) other polar bears. Added that same year was a small train with a 150 m rail which made the little ones happy and ready for the new season.
The founder, Mr. Ghislain Gagnon was extremely happy of the arrival of the largest cervidae in the world: the moose. However, keeping the animals in captivity proved itself a difficult task. The animals died rapidly, in months or only weeks. Actually, moose is one of the rare species to have a shorter life expectancy in captivity than when free, even with care, effort and abundant food. Even then the zoo persevered and has succeeded throughout the years in increasing the life expectancy of its moose. The arrival of the Nature Park Trails (Parc des sentiers de la nature) CARTE has certainly helped the situation.
As early as 1963, the zoo experimented with the breeding of the Ouaouaniche (Atlantic salmon), piscicultural emblem of the region. The experiments were crowned with both success and failure. In 1965, 20,000 Alevin were planted in the river. A real pisciculture that could accommodate 300,000 Alevins was built in 1966. Sadly, the Society had to stop the Ouananiche production in 1969 due to lack of funding and its inability to sell its production. The buildings later served to exhibit fish and reptiles in various aquariums. The building history didn’t stop there; in 1981 a donation from the St-Félicien Donohue allows its reconversion into an aquarium.
In 1964, work continued. The major event to note here was the arrival of a female Asian elephant. The year after the Zoo had an otter and sea lion enclosure and it also welcomes two caribou. These two gestating females gave birth respectively to a male and a female.
The reputation and popularity of the Zoo kept on growing. In 1968, only eight years after its opening, the zoo owned over 44 acres of land that 450 animals of 91 different species called home. Other than the animal paddock the zoo included many other buildings like a restaurant, a kitchen, a souvenir shop, the piscicultural station and the winter quarters. Continually expanding, the Zoo reached a new level in its development with the help of over a half a million dollars in Quebec Government subsidies spread out over 3 years. In 1968, the construction of the new large mammal pavilion is among one of the projects. On July 1st 1970, the pavilion welcomes a giraffe couple from Denver, Colorado. At the time, this represented the most expensive purchase in the Zoo’s history: $15,000 Canadian dollars. The giraffe reproduced well but the babies generally didn’t survive. They died shortly after birth or months later accidentally. Only one male baby survived many years.
The expansion of the Zoo continued in 1969 by purchasing an adjacent land that increased the total territory to 200 acres. At the same time, the founder Mr. Ghislain Gagnon, had different ambitions. Being a lover of nature, he was forced to keep the Zoo animals in cages and paddocks. Was there another way to do things? The Nature Park Trails (Parc des sentiers de la nature) was born from that desire for change.
The Park was inaugurated on September 10th 1972 with a territory of over 74 acres. The visitors could now observe animals of the Quebec fauna through a screened-in train that covered approximately 4 km. The unique and innovative concept of the Nature Park Trails (Le Parc des sentiers de la nature) marked a turning point in the Zoological Society of St-Félicien (Société zoologique de St-Félicien). Still today ‘the humans are in cages and the animals are free’. That same year Mr. Ghislain Gagnon was paid tribute to by inaugurating the Welcome Center which was named after him.
In 1973, the Society purchased a nearby campground in order to have the needed infrastructure to attract and welcome numerous visitors from the region. The campground-zoo relationship lasted 20 years. Finally, the campground was sold to the City of St-Félicien on October 27th 1993. The campground had cost a lot of money to the Society throughout the years. It eventually became profitable but the Zoo still had to get rid of it in order to obtain $3,750,000 in grants. The Governments required a $375,000 participation from the Society which they obtained by selling the campground.
With 1975 came new elements for the Nature Park Trails (Parc des sentiers de la nature). The territory was expanded with the purchase of lands equivalent to 4 square kilometers in 1974. Substantial work was done on the new land. Montagnais Lake (Lac Montagnais) was dug and Mount Keewatinook was erected. Considerable work continued until the official inauguration of the new trails which took place on June 25th 1978. From then on visitors could ride over 7 km where indigenous animals as well as historical sites were presented to them, among them were the Colonist Farm, the Lumberjack Camp, the Trading Post, the Indian Campground, the Grand Trestle and the Western Ranch.
After eight years of continuous effort, the first musk oxen finally arrived at the Nature Park Trails (Parc des sentiers de la nature) in 1978. The St-Félicien Zoo then became the second institution of the kind in Canada to harbor the species that live in the tundra.
On its 20th anniversary in 1980, the zoo had assets of over $5,500,000, gross revenues of over $1,500,000 and received over 320,323 visitors throughout the year. Since the early beginnings of the Zoo, 4,651,024 visitors had crossed the doorway. The Zoo became one of the most important motors that drove the Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean touristic region.
Mr. Gagnon took note of visitors’ comments and saw the educational interest grow. This sparked a reflection on the Zoo of the year 2000 concept and the importance of transforming the traditional Zoo. To help achieve the new transformations, the St-Félicien Zoological Society Foundation’ (Fondation de la Société zoologique de St-Félicien) was born in 1981.
In 1985, substantial work began. The main objective is to create habitats adapted to the animal way of life in order to take them out of their cages. For example three (3) large paddocks of 24m x 30m were built to house the felines. Furthermore a chimpanzee habitat was built where the animals were contained by a fence surrounding the water basin to keep humans out! Walls and ditches were now almost the only obstacles between the visitors and the large mammals like the giraffes, the hippopotami and the elephants.
Sadly, a work conflict in 1986 left the Zoo in a lockout for three months, causing substantial financial loss to the Society. The Zoo was experiencing a serious financial crisis at the time and a re-launching committee was created by the mayor of St-Félicien, Mr. Benoît Laprise. In three months, (early 1987) the dynamic team manages to raise more than $1,300,000 to save the Zoo. Everyone got involved to make it happen: employees, citizens, municipalities, corporations, governments and more.
The Zoo organization was put into question and organizational changes were made both at the employee and administrative level. The Zoological Society mission was established and aimed at, amongst other things, education, research and natural and cultural patrimony. That was why the educational service was put into place in 1987 to execute the new Zoo mission.
The Society continued its efforts and won many regional awards in 1988. In 1989 the name of the Zoo changed to St-Félicien ‘Wild’ Zoo (Zoo ‘sauvage’) which clearly illustrated both the position of the institution in terms of marketing and in terms of evolution. In 1992 the Zoo sauvage won first prize during the Grands prix du tourisme québecois under the category ‘touristic promotion’.
In 1989 the first wolverine arrived and the Unicorn Mausoleum is built at the site entrance. The founder, Mr. Ghislain Gagnon’s retirement did not go unnoticed. On December 31st 1992, 32 years after the foundation of ‘his’ zoo and the accomplishment of this dream, Mr. Gagnon retired. Then director of operations, Mr. Martin Laforge took over the management of the organization.
The Zoo had to solve its problem of wastewater discharging into the rivière-aux-saumons. In September 1993, the zoo was finally able to correct the situation with an innovative project that cost over $1,800,000. They were able to achieve this thanks to subsidies and the selling of the campground. They used artificial swamps to treat waste water coming from the zoo and the campground. This ecological project was pioneer in Quebec and one of the first steps in sustainable development.
The following years the Zoo made an important turn in its history. The Zoo was considering getting rid of the exotic animal collection. This idea was born when the Zoo sauvage saw it needed its own niche in order to attract clients. Visitors that had the possibily of seeing exotic animals in other institutions needed to have an interest in coming to the Zoo sauvage for its unique and specific style. Furthermore, there was somewhat of a contradiction between the traditional and exotic zoo; and the Nature Park Trails (Parc des sentiers de la nature) where free indigenous fauna roamed the land.
In 1993, an expert committee was founded in order to analyze the question. The committee concluded that only a huge investment, which would be used to restructure the traditional part of the zoo, would insure the survival of the Zoo sauvage as well as make them stand out from other institutions. Then came the Nordic shift. On top of having a unique market, the Zoo finances were healthier due to the loss of exotic species which were more costly to keep due to their nature. Major renovations now began on Île-aux-Bernard (1995), the Valley Sector (1996) and a new polar bear habitat was built (1997). Salvaged buildings later served to build veterinary clinics to meet the Quebec government and Canadian Association of Zoos and Aquariums (CAZA) standards.
From then on, animal cohabitation was not only exclusive to the Nature Park Trails (Parc des sentiers de la nature) but could be found everywhere on site. Other new elements were integrated such as the Great Aviary, the Kids Garden and the Interpretation Center named Ghislain-Gagnon. That is how, in winter 1997 the zoo welcomed its first visitors under its new Nordic calling accessible all four seasons.
Form nordic to Borealie
After 43 years of existence, the Zoo sauvage of St-Félicien underwent more change. Following many innovations which led the way for other Zoological Parks in Québec and confirmed the founders’ vision, the Zoo sauvage decided to broaden its mission and transform itself into a structure unique in the world: the Boreal Biodiversity Conservation Center’ (La Fondation du Centre de conservation de la biodiversité boréale (CCBB) in May of 2001.)
From services focused almost entirely on entertaining, the new CCBB sought to increase the benefits of its actions on a local, regional and international scale by giving itself an ecological and educational approach following the United Nations Framework Convention on biodiversity adopted in Rio in 1992. The goal was to promote conservation and sustainable usage of the biodiversity, more specifically in boreal environments. The Zoo vocation shifts from Nordic to the Boréalie. This new step was marked by the construction of an important building, the Boréalium which was the first phase of the new development project.
The Welcome Center, The Borealium includes :
– Ticket booth and visitors reception
– Special Effects movie theatre presenting our signature movie
– Large Screen movie theatre presenting fauna and flora movies
– Exhibition hall
– A discovery room for the youth
– A documentation center
– Research laboratories
– Administrative offices
Phase II of the project will be added and will aim at making visitors experience nature on territory not yet exploited. All of the Zoo changes are far from only being physical. The changes are deeper and more important; they are changes in mentality. We are experiencing it on both the social and the institutional level. The larger public now possess a better ecological conscience and the words ‘conservation’ and ‘sustainable development’ are now part of the population’s everyday vocabulary. There is still much left to be done…
This is where the CCBB steps in: to educate and protect. By presenting animals from the Boréalie from every angle (the interaction of the animal and its environment), the Zoo sauvage has succeeded in its mission.