Living the wild life
Vissers to retire after 39 years of caring for animals
When the heavy snow began building up on everything in the area, Bert and Karen Vissers weren’t inside by a heater; they were clearing snow in the wildlife park.
“We came in around 11 at night to remove snow from things like the cougar enclosure,” said Bert Vissers, manager of the Shubenacadie Provincial Wildlife Park. “Did we have to? No. Would we have had damage the next day if we hadn’t? Probably.”
This is the attitude that’s led to Vissers’ 39-year career at the park, and to his involvement in making changes to improve life for both people and wildlife. He’ll be officially retiring at the end of March, but will stay on for a while to ensure a smooth transition, and will remain involved with the park.
Vissers learned a lot about animals while growing up in Holland, where his father was in charge of a large private estate. He first came to Nova Scotia to work on his uncle’s farm, and liked it so much that he returned after completing his studies. He took a position at the wildlife park in February 1979, and worked his way up to manager.
“It’s been a rewarding career,” he said. “I feel good about what we’ve accomplished, as a team, at the park.
“When you look at what the enclosures were like when I first came, and what they’re like now, there’s no comparison. The diets are now second-to-none. They were developed with a Toronto Zoo nutritionist. We’ve learned a lot over the years.
“We’re working on an environmental enrichment program, and I’ll continue with that after I retire. You look at psychological and physical well-being, and you always have to look at new information and try to implement things that will improve life for captive wildlife.”
The park houses about 25 species of mammals and about 25 types of birds. Most of the birds of prey have permanent injuries, preventing them from being released into the wild, and some animals have come from facilities that had an abundance of their species.
Elk came from the Calgary Zoo, and the red deer are descendants of those brought from England in 1977. The magpies are handraised birds from Alberta.
The two otters in residence were born at the park 16 years ago, and when their mother rejected them Vissers took them home, where his wife and children helped raise them.
The two Sable Island horses currently at the park came from Upper Clements and are now 30. The male moose is 10.
“I really like the otters; they’re so inquisitive and full of life. I like moose too; they’re so gangly and each has its own attitude. They’re very nice animals.”
He noted visitors are much more educated about wildlife now, and attendance has gone up steadily during the past five years, with about 106,000 visitors during the past year.
Social media updates, the reindeer cam, Shubenacadie Sam, and the wetlands centre have helped draw people online and in person.
Vissers lists the major accomplishments during his time at the park as bringing in a new diet system, improved enclosures, and the addition of an education program.
“Keeping an animal in an enclosure just for the sake of doing so isn’t right,” he said. “It should help us learn how to improve things for ourselves and animals.”
Vissers is also directly involved in inspecting and creating provincial regulations for things like travelling reptile shows and circuses that include animals. He is working on zoo standards, and plans to continue with this after retirement.
“With this job, you’re on call pretty well 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” he said. “It does affect your home life, but I have a very supportive family who’ve helped me with animals when needed.
“What we’re doing, we’re doing well. That’s credit to the entire team at the park.”
He added that after he retires he hopes to travel around Nova Scotia, as well as remain active in efforts to help animals.
Even the otters come when called by Bert Vissers.
The moose are a favourite with Bert Vissers, manager of the Shubenacadie Provincial Wildlife Park. He likes both their gangly appearance and personalities.