An Aldergrove man who has spent more than half of his life working at the Greater Vancouver Zoo has been awarded unique prize for his dedication to the welfare of the animals and the hundred acre property.
Tony Guenther, Property Manager at the Greater Vancouver Zoo, was recently honoured with the Zoo and Aquarium Professional Award from Canada’s Accredited Zoos and Aquariums (CAZA). The national award recognizes innovation and significant contribution to the zoo and aquarium field by a permanent employee.
Guenther has been working at the zoo for 36 years — and living on the site with his family the entire time — ever since former owner Hugh Oakes hired the young carpenter who had been volunteering at the zoo on Saturdays for six months.
“I had been framing on construction sites with my father, Alvin, since finishing my grade 10 at Aldergrove Secondary. We had moved out to Aldergrove’s Robertson Crescent from Vancouver and for me it was like a dream, living in the country,” said the easy-going Guenther.
“Hugh knew my wife Dawnelle worked at Otter Co-op so he caught up with her at the co-op and told her that he had a full-time job as a maintenance guy, and a place to stay for me and Dawnelle, if I wanted it. Dawnelle could hardly wait to get home and tell me — it was our dream job.”
Oakes brought in a single-wide mobile home for the couple and Guenther set to work, building whatever the zoo needed from fences to shelters, as well as performing relief animal care work when needed. And as the Guenther family grew to three daughters, Oakes replaced the single-wide with a double-wide, where the Guenthers reside to this day.
“I was working six days a week, with Sundays off, for the next 15 years until Hugh and Eleanor Oakes sold the zoo. The Oakes slowly hired more people but those times were lean, and it was hard to get more than a couple days off in a year,” said Guenther.
“But I loved it, living and working here. Hugh and I worked together on everything that needed to be done; for the first ten years I was the one maintenance guy working here. I was always on site if something went wrong and needed attention.”
The Guenther family stayed on site and Tony kept working through the years with the zoo’s new owners, first a Korean family just over 20 years ago and recently a Chinese family purchased the zoo. Tony, who is now approaching 60, remains a valuable resident-employee and he hopes to stay on for the rest of his life.
“The new owners invested a lot of money, putting in the train, rebuilding barns and facilities like the quarantine unit and they have big plans for the future. They also employ 55 full-time people in the summer and this doesn’t gear back a lot in the winter, even though the attendance by paying customers doesn’t come close to covering the expenses in the off-season — there is basically a four-month window in the summer that pays the bills and makes things go.”
While the new owners have plans ready for more major improvements, Guenther says the zoo’s focus today is on conservation and education.
“This is good to see. All of us here are ‘animal people’ and we care about enriching the lives of the animals we keep, keeping them happy in captivity. We have a lot of orphans, like Rocket and Rosie, the two cougars that were found upcountry, mid-winter, starving. We were feeding them soft cat food at first and treating Rocket’s frostbite, to get them back in good health, and now they’re on a solid food diet, mostly chicken and fish. We built them an enhanced area, with logs and ponds, and they get along great.”
The two cats also watch the neighbouring black bear enclosure, where three orphaned siblings from Alaska are thriving.
“The three of them have a heyday, climbing to the tops of trees, snapping off branches and doing their bear things. In captivity they can live 20, even 30 years.
“Habitat is a big consideration. Like the new buildings for the badgers, which we designed and built ourselves. There are big logs and rocks, and a buried barrier to stop them from burrowing out of it, and they’re at it all day long, destroying the place,” said Guenther, with a laugh.
“The new owners have an entertainment background, so they know what people, especially kids, like. As we move ahead they plan to ensure new buildings have covered areas to protect the public from the weather, with glass windows instead of chainlink fencing, to draw more people in the off-season.
“I’m excited about how this is all moving, to make it a better experience for both the animals and the public,” says Guenther, who now has four young grandchildren who visit him and the zoo practically every weekend.
“This zoo is a wonderful place to grow up, and it’s been a wonderful place for me to grow old.”