Liv­ing the wild life

Vis­sers to re­tire af­ter 39 years of car­ing for an­i­mals

The Queens County Advance - - REGIONAL NEWS - BY LYNN CURWIN TRURO DAILY NEWS lynn.curwin@truro­daily.com

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.

PHO­TOS BY LYNN CURWIN/TRURO DAILY NEWS

The moose are a favourite with Bert Vis­sers, man­ager of the Shubenacadie Pro­vin­cial Wildlife Park. He likes both their gan­gly ap­pear­ance and per­son­al­i­ties.

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