BOOKS: Cinemazoo: my urban safari by Gary Oliver with Wendy Bancroft

From ANIMAL PEOPLE,  June 2012:

Cinemazoo:  my urban safari  by Gary Oliver with Wendy Bancroft
Granville Island Publishing (212 -1656 Duranleau, 
Granville Island,  Vancouver,  BC,  Canada V6H 
3S4),  2011.  162 pages,  paperback.  $24.95.

“I always like it when the situation calls for a bit of drama,  of pizzazz–when I have to assume some kind of persona,  put on a bit of theatre,”   writes Urban Safari Rescue founder Gary Oliver in possibly the most personally revealing passage of Cinemazoo:  my urban safari.  “Which is interesting,”  Oliver continues,  “because when you meet me,  I’m not at all theatrical.  I wear a big black cowboy hat,  but that’s because I’m bald and I like cowboy hats.”

Oliver was wearing the cowboy hat, indoors,  when I recently visited the former Rainforest Reptile Refuge in Surrey,  British Columbia to see what had become of the defunct refuge and the many charismatic animals whom founders Clarence and Christine Schramm housed in a dilapidated ex-grocery store.

Among their collection of abandoned and surrendered former exotic pets were several caimans who responded like dogs to Christine’s voice commands,  and one iguana with part of his jaw missing,  who knew that his name was “Joe Clark,”  after the notoriously weak-chinned onetime Canadian prime minister.  Among a multitude of iguanas clustered beneath heat lamps in a huge glass-fronted habitat,  “Joe Clark” alone would rouse himself when Christine called his name.

The Schramms split in 2000.  Three years later,  after 17 years of struggle,  Christine Schramm left,  turning the Rainforest Reptile Refuge over to volunteers,  who struggled on into 2007.  In December 2008 the Revenue Canada Charities Directorate revoked the Rainforest Reptile Refuge’s charitable status due to failure to file a Charity Information Return.

As many as 100 animals remained on site under volunteer care.  The building–just a mile north of the U.S. border –was reputedly used to grow marijuana.  The address does not appear on a Royal Canadian Mounted Police list of dope-growing sites raided in recent years,  but several other addresses in the neighborhood are listed,  one of which was rigged with explosive booby-traps.  There was also a drug-related fatal shooting at a nearby intersection.

Gary Oliver relocated his Cinemazoo animal entertainment business and Urban Safari Rescue operations to the building in August 2010. He inherited some of the former Rainforest Reptile Refuge animals,  but told me that neither caimans,  nor iguanas,  nor any other animals of significant street value were among them.

Oliver did,  however,  arrive with two alligators and four caimans.  The caimans died when the building furnace failed during an October 2010 cold snap.  The British Columbia SPCA investigated Oliver for cruelty,  partly because of the caiman deaths,  partly because he kept the alligators’ mouths taped shut for about a week after moving them,  while working to finish their enclosure.  “I taped their mouths so I wouldn’t get my ass chomped,”  Oliver told Ted Colley of Surrey Now.  “Gators stop eating when they’re moved.  It’s a thing with all crocodilians.

I’ve seen some go seven months without eating.”   Oliver was not prosecuted.  He did,  however,  agree to surrender about 25 animals,  including snakes, geckos,  and red-eared slider turtles,  to the BC/SPCA.  By order of the British Columbia Environment Ministry,  enforcing a law against possession of dangerous exotic species which took effect on April 1,  2010,  Oliver sent the alligators and about 20 venomous snakes to a reptile museum near Drumheller,  Alberta.  Oliver and other exotic animal keepers had for three years unsuccessfully fought,  in opposition to the BC/SPCA and the Vancouver Humane Society,  to have the law amended to “grandfather” their right to keep the animals they already had.

“In principle,  I agree with the intent of the law,”  Oliver told me.  “I just think they should have included something in it to recognize people like me.”

But from the perspective of the major British Columbia humane organizations,  people like Oliver are why the law exists.  “Cinemazoo profits from renting captive animals out for advertising,  television programs,  and corporate entertainment.  This is exploitation,  not conservation,”  wrote Vancouver Humane Society spokesperson Peter Fricker to Surrey Now in September 2010.

The autobiographical book Cinemazoo:  my urban safari originated as part of the publicity for a proposed television series featuring Oliver and his animals that never was made.  Instead, some of the material was incorporated into a web TV series called Saving Cinemazoo,  about Oliver’s failed effort to keep all of his animals.

Summarizes the back cover,  “Many of the animals you’ve seen in movies have been supplied by Gary Oliver.  The animals come from CinemazooŠOn set,  Gary is their wrangler –he makes them do what they’re supposed to do.

But, he is also their protector.  Virtually all of his animals have been rescued,  and he has taken on a mission to help others,  especially young people, learn about responsible ownership and species preservation.”  The term “ownership” alone will jar the sensibilities of many animal advocates. Neither is “species preservation” always consonant with the humane mission of preventing cruelty.   Also of note is that Cinemazoo,  the business,  originated in 1988–nearly 20 years before Oliver incorporated Urban Safari Animal Rescue,  the parallel nonprofit whose work Cinemazoo funds.

Earlier,  as the book Cinemazoo recounts, Oliver founded and operated one of Vancouver’s first doggy day-care centers to keep the Cinemazoo animal entertainment business going. Oliver sold the doggy-day care business to his first employee after Cinemazoo became more successful,  amid concern about liability if any of the dogs in care attacked anyone.

Cinemazoo documents that Oliver has long had an intense interest in animals, beginning at age six,  when he started an insect collection that eventually included more than 10,000 specimens from around the world. Oliver donated some to the Royal Ontario Museum and gave others to friends,  while trying to save a failed early marriage and avoid his eventual permanent loss of
custody of two daughters.

As a teen,  Oliver and a daredevil friend slipped into the Swift Premium Packing House feedlot near their homes in the Toronto suburbs to ride the penned steers.  “Part of me felt bad about tormenting these poor animals who were about to get slaughtered,”  Oliver recalls.

“Then again,  maybe it was the last bit of fun they had,”  as they repeatedly threw him off and once threw him over a couple of fences.

Later Oliver and women he was involved with raised horses in Ontario and British Columbia.  For a time Oliver was part of the
Ontario Governor General’s Horse Guards, participating in the opening of Parliament and a ceremonial visit by the Queen Mother.  She spooked Oliver’s horse by kicking her landau’s door open,  then complimented Oliver on his horsemanship when he kept his mount and calmed the horse.

Ensuing ups and downs included making and losing a million dollars in the aluminum picture frame business,  six months of homelessness,  and then relative success brokering rentals of art studio space,  selling art supplies,  and doing fashion photography,  in a fur-trimmed leather jacket –another jolt to animal advocates’ sensibilities.

Oliver credits an exceptionally gregarious cat named Maynard with leading him from fashion photography into furnishing animals for screen use.  Clearly Oliver had relationships with individual animals which were at least as enduring as his many transient relationships with women,  but Cinemazoo does not display much deep thought,   concern,  or even awareness about
animal suffering or the sentience of animals in general.  Oliver mentions animal rights activism only once,  in passing,  and mentions humane work only in recounting that the BC/SPCA investigated a film set he was working on when someone complained that the chimpanzees (not his,  but under his supervision) were being walked barefoot on pavement.

So,  in operating Urban Safari Rescue, is Oliver another of the many exhibitors who have learned to run traveling animal shows and roadside zoos under the cover of helping animals? Or has Oliver come late in life to an awakening similar to those that impelled former screen animal wranglers Pat Derby and Ric O’Barry to change directions decades earlier?

Unlike Derby,  who founded the Performing Animal Welfare Society in 1984,  and O’Barry, who began campaigning for dolphin liberation in 1970,  Oliver is still wrangling animals. Fricker of the Vancouver Humane Society in March 2012 appealed for a boycott of the Vancouver Pet Expo because he claimed that appearances by Oliver and another reptile exhibitor would encourage more people to acquire reptiles as pets.  “During our educational programs,  we tell kids these are not good pets,”  countered Oliver
to Frank Luba of the Vancouver Province.

I visited Urban Safari Rescue, unannounced,  soon after that exchange–of which I was at the time unaware.  I asked about the
caimans and the iguana Joe Clark.  Oliver answered in a politely guarded manner.  Then he recognized the name ANIMAL PEOPLE.  “You send it to us,”  he said,  “and we read it.”  Two recent editions were in a rack near his desk.

During the next half hour or thereabouts Oliver gave me the grand tour of thepremises–now much more dilapidated than in the Rainforest Reptile Refuge days,  but almost a decade of non-maintenance before Oliver’s arrival accounts for that.

Oliver outlined dreams of bigger and better facilities.  He explained how becoming interested in animals,  in part through traveling exhibitors,  encouraged him to study animals, art,  and science,  instead of becoming involved in drugs,  like many others he knew in the Vancouver counterculture.  He showed me a rather horrifying shelf of now contraband wildlife items
collected from antique shops,  used in his presentations.

Separating the sincere and spontaneous from the well-rehearsed patter was no easy task. About all I could say for sure is that Oliver believes in what he is doing.  Despite occasionally wrangling animals for big cinematic hits,  such as the film Snakes On A Plane, Oliver has not made much money,  and has put most of what he has made into maintaining his animals–not cute and cuddly species who readily attract donations,  but animals who nonetheless need homes and feeding.  The Rainforest Reptile Refuge failed,  Oliver believes,  because the founders refused to exhibit.  To be exhibited, in what Oliver says he intends to be a respectful and considerate manner,  is the price of survival for the cast-off reptiles,  tarantulas,  and other non-cute-and-cuddlies in his care.

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