Life

BURDEN OF BEASTS

At his ‘ark’ on a Fraser Valley farm, a B.C. businessman tends to hundreds of endangered species

KEN MACQUEEN June 13 2005
Life

BURDEN OF BEASTS

At his ‘ark’ on a Fraser Valley farm, a B.C. businessman tends to hundreds of endangered species

KEN MACQUEEN June 13 2005

BURDEN OF BEASTS

Life

KEN MACQUEEN

At his ‘ark’ on a Fraser Valley farm, a B.C. businessman tends to hundreds of endangered species

IF YOU WERE worth an outrageous amount of money, what would you do with it? If you were Vancouver businessman Gordon Blankstein, you’d build a metaphorical ark on verdant Fraser Valley farmland near Fort Langley, B.C., and you’d stock it with hundreds of the world’s most endangered animals: mountain bongo antelope from East Africa, Malayan tapirs (resembling a cross between boar and bear), African wild dogs, Vancouver Island marmots. If a certain segment of the population considered you a “wing nut,” as Blankstein puts it, so what? They laughed at Noah, too.

And if the great tech bust reversed your fortunes, sinking your company at a cost of $100 million, what would you do? If you were Blankstein, you’d ponder the wreckage of Global Light Telecommunications (one of many businesses from restaurant chains to telephone companies, he’s nurtured over

the years), and you’d ask yourself, as Blankstein did, “How could I be such a dumb-ass?” Then you’d start to worry— about the animals.

That’s where Blankstein, 54, sits today. Sprawls, actually, in a cozy pen at the 50hectare Mountain View Conservation and Breeding Centre, affectionately rubbing the tummy of Tawny, a heavy-snouted tapir. This new mother could inflict some 300 kg of hurt on this human intruder, if she weren’t so darned comfy. The farm—an hour’s commute from the office towers of Vancouver, Blankstein’s other habitat—was purchased in 1986 by him and his wife, Yvonne, who shares his passion for the rare and the threatened.

Until now, the Blanksteins have underwritten most of the considerable expensesome $500,000 a year—of gathering, feeding and breeding a remarkably diverse extended family. Some 20 African wild dogs, rare and ruthlessly efficient predators, cart off a meal of cow legs to the distant hills of their enclosure. The towering parents of a three-month-old Masai giraffe glare protectively as strangers approach. Ivan, an Indian rhino who outweighs your average SUV, wanders by the electric fence of his enclosure, oblivious to the rain. Some 14 Cuvier’s gazelles will go this year to a breeding centre in the Middle East. Entire herds of graceful B.C.-raised addax antelope and Mhorr’s gazelles will be sent to Senegal in coming years to replenish decimated wild stocks. Four of the centre’s Vancouver Island marmots, one of the world’s rarest mammals, were returned to the wild last year. Seventeen more hibernate in a secure enclosure, behind a double layer of wire fencing. A few marmots won’t change the world, Blankstein concedes, but look at the line of other creatures following them toward oblivion. “God put them here,” he says. “Do we think we have the right to take them away?”

Even before their finances went south, the Blanksteins had transformed the farm into a non-profit society. “It was probably past the stage where I could manage it properly, and not just financially” he says. “It’s an awesome responsibility.” There are now about 70 volunteers. A directing board is sparking ideas to make the centre selfsustaining: animal adoptions, corporate sponsorships, a shifting focus to the increasing numbers of endangered Canadian species, and additional facilities to bring in more paying visitors.

For all that, it will never be a zoo. Animals here have the space to hide, the freedom to roam, rut and fight. Some hunt live food. Offspring are raised with minimal human intervention. While many profit-driven zoos are producing “lab rats” suitable only for public display, says Blankstein, the society’s aim is to raise animals capable of being returned to their natural habitat.

He applies his own survival instincts to rebuilding his business life, using what income he can from his latest venture, a mining company in Mexico, to keep his ark afloat. In conversation, Blankstein fluctuates between two passions, the corporate and wild kingdoms—both ruled by the law of the jungle. “I’ll bounce back,” he says. It’s the animals he worries about. (TO