Remember when rhinos and giraffes roamed the Okanagan? - InfoNews

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Remember when rhinos and giraffes roamed the Okanagan?

Image Credit: Flickr/Paul Ransom
August 22, 2019 - 7:00 AM

KELOWNA - Remember when rhinos roamed the grassy hills of the South Okanagan?

How about when giraffes languidly chewed leaves from the treetops?

Hugh Oakes does.

The Okanagan Game Farm opened in 1967 and Oakes moved from his job at the Vancouver Zoo in 1990 to run it for its last 10 years of operation.

“There were 20 shareholders who were all local Penticton people — my father in law was one of them — who started the game farm,” said Oakes, who still lives in Kaleden near the old farm.

“It had all the North American wildlife and it had more than the average Canadian amount of African, Asian and South American wildlife.”

There were 130 species of animals with a headcount of 1,200.

Among the more exotic animals were giraffes, rhinos, lions, Siberian tigers, bears — oh my. And sheep and Canadian animals of all kinds were there, too.

They leased 667 acres from the Penticton Indian Band, so it was a vast space for animals to roam.

“You would drive your own vehicle through the park, then you would stop and look,” Oakes said. “There was about 5.5 kms of roadway and it was all fenced.”

The park was accredited by the Canadian Zoo Association, and he said that set it apart from “roadside zoos.”

“They’re the ones that came under scrutiny, as they should have been,” said Oakes, acknowledging that the idea of keeping animals in captivity has fallen out of favour over the years.

“I understand both sides of the animals in captivity issue. I understand my side more than the other, but I see their point and understand it.”

Okanagan Game Farm had some exotic creatures in its care.
Okanagan Game Farm had some exotic creatures in its care.

He believes that accredited Canadian wildlife parks are doing important work in the areas of research and breeding.

“There are a lot of animals that are going extinct faster than we realized and (these parks) are the only ones in Canada doing anything about it,” he said. “So, from that point of view, it’s a wonderful thing to do. If you’re going to do the breeding then it only makes sense to be open to the public so they can enjoy.”

The ethics around keeping animals in captivity, however, isn’t what caused Oakes to pull the plug on the farm.

The Band raised the rent on the land and it was no longer feasible to keep it open.

The animals were all moved to new homes, with 30 per cent going to facilities within Canada, 40 per cent off to U.S. locations and others to parts across the globe.

“I had an attachment to every one of them, of course,” Oakes said. “I followed them. At this stage now, the originals have all mostly passed away, but their offspring are still around North America— it’s getting more difficult to follow them.”

He has plenty of fond memories of those days though.

“It was wonderful,” he said. “I like to tell whoever will listen to me, I worked 365 days a year from daylight to dark and enjoyed every minute of every day.”

His best moments came “every day when a new baby was born.” Breeding exotic animals was part of the way the farm funded itself.

To keep getting his fix of these creatures, Oakes has to travel much further, and he will.

Now, at 83 years old, he’s getting ready for a six week trip with friends to the wilds of South Africa and Namibia.

“I still travel with my camera and photograph wildlife,” he said. “I am still very much into it. Another couple is going with us, who has just retired from Moncton, NB zoo and we’re getting together to do this trip. It’s just to enjoy the wildlife.”

To contact a reporter for this story, email Kathy Michaels or call 250-718-0428 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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