A lion on the loose: how an unregulated Nanaimo zoo resulted in tragedy
Big cats and small children played together at Hertel’s zoo. Escapes were commonplace. Then the inevitable happened
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Big cats and small children played together at Hertel’s zoo. Escapes were commonplace. Then the inevitable happened
This story is also featured on the Capital Daily podcast.
In June 1957, Nanaimo was abuzz with excitement as a new zoo prepared to open its gates.
Paul Hertel was moving his Port Alberni zoo, and his vast array of animals, to a 20-acre plot six miles north of the city on Rutherford Road. Bears, cougars, wolves, and even African lions would be housed at Hertel’s Zoo, and tourists were expected to come from all over the Island and the mainland to see the attraction that boasted of an up-close experience with the animals.
Back then, zoos had no regulations. Children would have the chance to take a ride on Hertel’s two cougars, or pet the yearling brown bears, read an article in The Province ahead of the zoo’s opening. Visitors could even go into the lion cage and take a picture with the big cats.
Hertel told a reporter that his secret to taming wild animals was “kindness and being unafraid.”
But less than a year after the zoo reopened in Nanaimo, tragedy struck.
One evening in May 1958, a two-year-old, 350-pound lioness named Fury slipped out of her enclosure and away from the zoo.
Paul Hertel, a German immigrant, had bought his four lions from a circus two years prior when the zoo was still located in Port Alberni. They were a big draw, and hundreds of visitors had had their pictures taken with the big cats from inside the enclosure.
Fury was considered the tamest and was a favourite with children and tourists, according to a Canadian Press article from 1958.
The zoo was built in a time when a frontier mentality still dominated north of Victoria’s tame lawns and stone walls. The Island’s natural resources drove population growth as industries like mining and forestry took hold. The logging industry, especially, prized a certain ruggedness and self-determination needed when working this physically demanding job in the Island wilderness.
As a logger in Port Alberni, Hertel spent countless hours amongst the trees; walking through the territories of a multitude of wild species. It was in these trees that his love of animals grew and his collection began.
Dozens of animals lived enclosed behind wire fences by the time Hertel’s Zoo officially opened more than a decade later, in 1955. The attraction featured cougars and bald eagles, but also bobcats, lynx, spider monkeys, and a variety of small animals and birds. A family of four could spend an afternoon at the zoo for 70 cents—and it was a popular attraction—but as the zoo grew, Hertel needed more space and more help.
In 1957, Hertel asked Port Alberni council for financial aid. During the winter months when there were fewer tourists in town, Hertel was bleeding money trying to keep the animals fed. But once it was clear council wasn’t going to give him any funding, Hertel settled on Nanaimo as a good place to move the venture.
Throughout its first year in Nanaimo, the zoo grew to house more than 200 animals, including an eight-year-old elephant named Susie. Diane Bennett went to the zoo a handful of times with her family as a kid and remembers seeing Susie roaming around the property.
There were no zoo regulations then.
“I suppose [the elephant] was in a cage part of the time, but I remember being there when it was just walking around the property,” she told Capital Daily. “You could go and pat her and give her carrots.”
Linda Pineo Lawry, who was around nine when the zoo moved to Nanaimo, says she visited every weekend. Her father had known Hertel from when the two families had lived in Port Alberni, so Hertel let her go into the cages to pet and feed the animals. She particularly remembers two cougars, Hans and Fritz.
The cougars, which Hertel had raised from kittens, were very affectionate towards the zoo keeper and were known to purr in his presence and lick his hair. Hertel performed with the cats, shocking crowds of spectators by putting his head in between a cougar’s open jaws. When Lawry’s father opened a service station in the region, Lawry recalls Hertel bringing one of the cougars and taking it out of the cage for the guests to pet.
“I used to go and visit [the cougars] all the time at the zoo and, you know, go into the cage and play with them,” she told Capital Daily. “I didn’t go in for very long—five to 10 minutes a day sort of thing—and I helped clean out some of the pens and things like that. I was having a great time. When you’re that age and working around animals, it’s great. Working around wild animals is even more fun.”
She said Hertel was always a nice man and always made sure she was safe.
Later, Hertel asked Lawry’s parents if she could pose with the lions for a postcard that would be sold in the zoo gift shop. Her mother agreed, so Lawry walked into the lion cage wearing her nicest dress for the photo, with Hertel standing by. Lawry knelt down between a lion and lioness, while the zoo owner held another cat, Fury, on the opposite side of the enclosure.
“I was never afraid. I remember I was quite confident going into the cages with any of the animals,” said Lawry. “That’s something Mr. Hertel had passed onto me I guess and gave me the confidence.”
Lawry didn’t find out one of the lions had escaped and killed a little girl around her age until days after it had happened.
“As far as I can remember, I was basically in shock in a sense,” she said. “I had just been playing with them a few days before.”
In a pride, the female lions are the primary hunters.
While males use their size and strength to corner and attack their prey, the smaller females often hunt in groups, using their additional speed to their advantage.
A lioness will stay hidden, stalking her target until she is close enough to pounce. Once the prey is within her grasp, the lioness will use her powerful bite to strangle it or break its neck. She will then carry her kill back to her pride.
In the wild, lions eat anything from birds to antelopes and wildebeests. In Nanaimo, Hertel often put advertisements in the paper for horse meat to feed his four big cats.
On May 3, 1958, the families that lived near the zoo didn’t know that Fury had escaped the night before—or that she was still on the loose. It was a Saturday, so the neighbourhood children went outside to play as usual.
Shortly before 11am, eight-year-old Maureen Vanstone and her five-year-old sister Patricia were walking along a road near their house when they saw two friends approaching on their bikes, Lee Butcher, 11, and her sister Janet, 7.
Maureen and Patricia jumped to the bushes at the side of the road at the approach of their friends, as if to start a game of hide-and-seek. But soon, realizing they had already been spotted, Maureen stepped back out towards the Butchers. Unbeknownst to her, she was also stepping out in front of Fury.
“Then I saw an animal in the middle of the road,” Lee told the Canadian Press days after the attack. “Maureen looked back over her shoulder just as it jumped. She called out something, but I couldn’t understand what she said.”
Janet told reporters, “I saw the lion. It didn’t run away. It just stayed on top of Maureen.”
The two girls grabbed Patricia and ran screaming to the nearest house, leaving their bikes on the road. The home owner alerted the RCMP and the Butchers’ father who rushed to the scene.
Walter Butcher later testified in court that he was first confronted with several pieces of torn clothing lying on the road and soon found the body of a little girl. He picked her up and moved her onto the grass before spotting Fury in the distance and firing his gun at her, scaring her off.
The lioness had been standing on the road about 100 feet away with something in her mouth: a child’s red coat.
Dr. R. T. H. Nixon, who did the autopsy on Maureen, testified that she had bite marks on her neck, and her jugular vein was severed. Dr. Nixon said the cause of death was likely damage to her spine and spinal cord. Death would have been immediate.
The story of the escaped lion and Maureen Vanstone’s death isn’t the only zoo-related tragedy in BC. And it took these tragedies for the BC government to regulate zoos and animals kept in captivity.
All across North America in the 1950s, there were very few regulations controlling zoos. In BC—until Fury escaped—there were none.
The Nanaimo attack motivated government officials to move quickly to create a committee and pass regulations and licensing requirements for private zoos. The requirements, announced in June 1958, would force all zoos to apply for licences to keep animals, pass an inspection, and pay the $100 permit fee.
“It is something I’ve wanted for a long time,” Hertel told the Times Colonist after the provincial announcement. “In the past there were no regulations.”
The Game Act (now called the Wildlife Act) authorized the “destruction” of any animal that had escaped from a zoo. It also gave the Game Commission the power to revoke the licence of any zoo they felt no longer met the vague safety requirements.
The act did not specifically spell out regulations for enclosures, either from an animal welfare or safety perspective, because few standards had yet been set in Canada and the US. Therefore, in the beginning, issuing (or revoking) a licence was largely up to the inspecting officer’s discretion.
Nearly two decades later, Canada’s Accredited Zoos & Aquariums (CAZA) was created, and eventually, BC began requiring zoos to adhere to CAZA standards. But there was still a gap in the regulations when it came to private ownership of exotic animals.
In 2007, a 32-year-old woman was mauled to death by a Bengal tiger near 100 Mile House. The tiger had grabbed her leg through its cage and fatally severed an artery. Multiple people witnessed the attack, including two of her children. The private zoo, Siberian Magic, was owned by the woman’s fiancé, Kim Carlton.
In 2009, the provincial government again stepped in to reactively prevent similar tragedies. The Wildlife Act Controlled Alien Species Regulation was enacted, banning the private ownership, breeding, and sale of 1,200 species of exotic animals, including tigers and lions, that pose a potential threat to people, property, or wildlife. Only zoos that meet the CAZA standards can receive permits.
A year later, Carlton received a $500 fine for possessing two lion cubs without the permit that was only required because of what had happened at his zoo.
According to the BC SPCA, the province has some of Canada’s most restrictive legislation on keeping exotic animals. But even still, the current regulations may not be enough, animal rights advocates say.
In 2015, a cheetah imported from South Africa was photographed walking on a highway in the Kootenays, causing a school to go into lockdown. The cheetah was never found and charges were dropped against the suspected owners. In 2019, a monkey was spotted walking down a road in Campbell River and was also never seen again.
Jordan Reichert, the West Coast director of the Animal Alliance of Canada, told Capital Daily in September that when exotic species are kept in unnatural habitats, we shouldn’t be surprised when they escape. His comments came after a ball python, kept by its owner in a backpack in Victoria, escaped and died last summer.
“This is an ongoing issue,” he said. “It takes place all over BC.”
Like the Vanstones, Walter Butcher didn’t know a lion had escaped, despite living near Hertel’s Zoo. In fact, a police constable investigating the tragedy later found that none of the neighbours knew.
Many of those neighbours, along with parents of Maureen’s playmates, packed a small church days later for her funeral. Hertel was also in attendance, but he collapsed half-way through and left the church before the service had finished.
After the attack, Hertel was arrested and charged with criminal negligence leading to death. He was later acquitted of the charge, but the contemporaneous Nanaimo Daily Free Press account of the court proceedings pieces together how the lion escaped and why no one knew about it.
On May 2, 1958, zoo worker Waldmar Jungenkruegar went into the lion enclosure to fill Fury’s watering trough. Junkenkruegar, who had worked with Hertel on and off for five years, testified that he remembered closing and latching the gate, but when he looked around from his chore, he saw the lion passing through the open door.
He told the court he grabbed for her tail, but she “just took off.” Fury didn’t heed his and Hertel’s attempts to round her up and instead ran into the bush.
The pair weren’t too concerned initially because they were expecting her to come back soon enough to feed; the lion had been out of its cage before and had always returned on her own accord.
Even earlier that day, a different lion had briefly escaped, Jungenkrueger testified in court. Three visitors had just had their picture taken with the caged lions, and as they were being escorted out, one of the cats pushed past them through the open door. It jumped on a goat tethered nearby and Jungenkrueger fought it off and back into the enclosure with a piece of two-by-four and Hertel’s help. “He gave me a bawling out for being so careless,” Jungenkrueger told the court.
The Daily Free Press reported that when Hertel was asked if lions had escaped before, he replied: “That is not the exact word. They would walk out at feeding time but come right back in again. I have often taken a cougar into the woods with me and it would follow like a dog.”
So, when the lion escaped, Hertel and Jungenkrueger didn’t feel the need to inform the authorities and instead spent the night tracking her as best they could. But by morning, with the lion still loose, Hertel knew it was time to alert families living nearby.
Jungenkrueger was directed to call the Vanstones with the expectation that they would pass the information on to the rest of the neighbours. Unfortunately, the phone number the zoo had next to the family’s name was instead the number for a woman who lived at the Somerset Hotel, Irene Dunbar.
Jungenkrueger testified that he thought Dunbar was one of the Vanstone’s children. Dunbar, confused that the man on the line had asked if her parents were around, did not pass the message on to others—she said she didn’t know she was supposed to.
It was because of this that the Vanstone girls—and many other neighbouring children—were outside playing that day.
As soon as the RCMP was notified of the attack, hundreds of offers of assistance came in as police quickly worked to organize a search for the lion. A big group of RCMP officers, Fish and Game Association members, and volunteers searched in sections around the Vanstone’s farm as two airplanes circled above.
Bennett said she lived quite far away from the zoo, but her mother gathered her and her four siblings inside after hearing the news.
“My mother called us all into the house because it was on the radio that there was a lion that had escaped and people should keep their kids inside,” said Bennett. “So, we were all very nervous and fearful about that whole thing. I think by the time it was on the radio, the Vanstone girl was already killed.”
Wilma Smith-Veillette was 10 at the time and remembers having piano lessons that day. She had ridden her bike to the lesson and was too afraid to ride home after hearing about the attack. Her dad had to pick her up. “Obviously I had nightmares about this,” she said.
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Two hours into the search for the lion, Fury was spotted and shot in the paw—but she fled once again. Another half-hour later, a father and his 19-year-old son, both Fish and Game members, spotted the lion about a mile from the zoo.
“It was just sitting on its haunches in a little bit of a rocky depression,” remembered the son, who spoke with Capital Daily on condition that his name not be used. “And it paid us not really any heed, but my father saw it first and he fired a shot at it.”
The lion began snarling at them and got to its feet, at which point, the father realized his gun was jammed. His son, standing a few paces behind, fired his own gun at the lioness twice, killing it.
“After, when we walked down to it and realized what it was, what we had done, it was kind of an unsettling feeling,” he recalled. All these years later, he said it’s a memory he would rather forget.
Since before the zoo even arrived in Nanaimo, the SPCA had spoken out against it. Days after the attack, calls for its closure grew.
“Regardless of anything that is done to secure the animals, mothers are going to live in fear of another escape. Nothing’s going to take that fear away,” a Wellington resident who started a petition against the zoo told the Daily Free Press.
But the zoo stayed open, and two months after the attack, Hertel told the paper that the tragic incident hadn’t caused business to drop.
It would ultimately be another three years until the zoo would close for good.
Hertel’s Zoo had made safety improvements days after the incident, which were noted in an inspection by BC game department officials. Padlocks had been added to the lion, cougar, and bear pens, and additional fencing with another locked gate had been constructed in front of the lion pen’s door. Hertel’s Zoo was ruled “adequate” with some room for improvement, while Rudy Bauersach’s zoo near Victoria was termed “absolutely foolproof.” Hertel’s Zoo was given permission to operate as long as it was brought up to the necessary standard. He later received a newly introduced zoo licence.
Hertel immediately set about working on ways to improve the zoo and bring it back into the tourist limelight. He announced he was founding the Vancouver Island Zoological Society and planned on expanding to fill the rest of the 90-acre property with a “zoological garden” filled with native Canadian animals. The expansion would take about five years at a cost of $100,000.
Hertel was confident zoological society membership fees and fundraising would pay for the expansion costs, but by September 1959, the zoo needed more money. Operating on a shoestring budget, conditions at the zoo had begun to deteriorate, and early the next year, the game department’s zoo committee made the decision to revoke its licence after an inspection turned up poor results.
“The general condition of the animals is reflected in the lack of proper housing and care given by the zoo officials,” said Tom Hughes, then-president of the BC SPCA.
On May 14, 1960, the zoo was put under the charge of Sheriff Frank Hodgson, who began attempting to sell off the various animals, but Hertel was still hopeful he could raise enough money to pay off his $3,200 in fines and save the zoo. “If I could sell Susie [the elephant] for what I think she is worth, I could be back into business again,” he said.
Susie did not sell, but help came at the last minute in the form of Vancouver electrical contractor Daniel Dettwiler. Dettwiler put forward money to bail the operation out and the pair formed a partnership to give the venture one last go.
But just four months later, Hertel walked out on the zoo for good, leaving it in Dettwiler’s hands after disagreeing with his business partner on zoo policy and management.
“I have no plans for the immediate future, and I’m flat broke, the same as I was 30 years ago when I first came to Canada,” he told the Daily Free Press.
After quitting the zoo for good, Hertel had packed up his family and moved them back to the town with the hope of leaving the zoo and the tragedy behind.
He returned to the forests as a logger, venturing back into the wilderness where decades earlier he had discovered his love of animals. Hertel died in Port Alberni in 1981 at the age of 71.
Dettwiler struggled with the pressures of decreasing visitors for another several months until the game department once again threatened to revoke the zoo’s licence if improvements weren’t made. But by this point, there was just no more money left, and a deadline of Sept. 5, 1961, was given to sell the animals or they would be destroyed.
After the City of Nanaimo declined Dettwiler’s offer of taking charge of the zoo for $1, he gave some of the animals away for free to local residents and sold the rest to a traveling carnival based out of Kelowna, owned by Jim Greenaway.
But just before the animals were moved to their new home, Dettwiler received a $100 fine for keeping the animals without a licence—just one more nail in the coffin.
Neither Hertel’s nor Dettwiler’s obituaries mention anything about the zoo they both owned.
Today, where the zoo once stood off Rutherford Road and behind Long Lake, there is little left to show of what used to be. The city has long-since encroached on its artificial habitat, and housing developments have taken the place of the chain-link cages.