Who is "the Colonel" Anyway?
I visited "the Colonel" three times, spoke to him on the phone dozens of times and wrote to him even more frequently over the eight years I knew him. I know the Shetland Sheep portion of his complex and busy life better than anyone except his family. I admit that I am fuzzy on many details but I think I have the gist of what happened correct.
Back in the thirties, the Colonel started a project where he brought wild animals, captured in their native habitat, to his facility in Ontario. There he bred the animals and sold the offspring to circuses, zoos, etc. World War II and a stint in the Foreign Service interrupted him for a while.
The advantages to the Colonel's approach are many:
By the late sixties, the operation was substantial and he had gained a favorable reputation in wild animal circles. A friend suggested to the Colonel that the public might like to see the animals at his facility and would be willing to pay for the privilege. African Lion Safari Park began. The African Lion Safari Park in Cambridge, Ontario has grown to a substantial drive-thru theme park employing close to 100 full time people and more than 200 seasonal people. They have a restaurant, gift shop, snack stands and a camp ground as part of the park.
The whole family became involved. The Colonel generally ran things but his beautiful wife, Ginny, oversaw the theme park daily operation. His daughter-in-law took on the bird part of the operation with special interest in birds of prey. She puts on regular shows demonstrating the abilities of many exotic birds. She also manages and trains the draft horses. One son deals with all the reptiles and has build a great reputation for this portion of the operation. A daughter-in-law runs the restaurant and gift shop and a son supervises the operation of all the equipment and facilities.
But what does this have to do with Shetland Sheep you ask! In the early '70's, while in Great Britain, the Colonel met Michael Rosenberg of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust (RBST). In the course of conversation, Michael explained the plight of the Shetland Sheep and how special they are. Michael estimated, if something wasn't done soon, Shetland Sheep, as a pure breed, would be extinct by the year 2000. The lure of big money working in the North Sea oil fields was attracting the would-be shepherds of the Shetland Islands. Michael said the RBST had started a major effort to preserve the Shetland sheep. The Colonel felt, if some major calamity struck the British Isles, Shetland Sheep might be lost forever. It was then he started the ball rolling to import some to Canada.
This was no easy task. Although there has never been a documented case of scrapie in the Shetland Islands, the overall bureaucratic concern for the potential of exporting scrapie from Europe was a problem. Even greater was the concern for exporting an endangered species. As a rare breed, many felt exporting any at all was a mistake. Canada being a member of the Commonwealth of Nations helped. After several years, the Colonel, with the help of many, jumped through all the hoops successfully and received a less than enthusiastic approval to proceed. The sheep would have to be in quarantine in Great Britain for a year and in permanent quarantine in Canada. The Colonel could not sell offspring until the first born lamb was 60 months (yes, 5 years) old. While in quarantine in Great Britain and in Canada, every sheep was inspected monthly by the government to be sure they were healthy.
With the help of Michael Rosenberg, twenty-eight ewes and four rams were chosen. The rams were hand picked as exemplary representatives of the breed from a wide range of flocks to broaden the gene pool. Michael kept the Colonel's Shetlands on his estate for the quarantine in Great Britain. Then the exciting day came. In December 1980, the Colonel's flock was flown to Toronto and taken to his farm along side the African Lion Safari Park.
The following summer, the Colonel and Ginny rebuilt the old farm house and moved in so they were near the Park and the Shetlands. The sheep lived in a beautiful old stone based barn, well over a hundred years old. In the fall of 1981, for his 70th birthday, the Colonel was given a sweater made from the wool of his favorite Moorit ram, named "Colonel". This birthday party was a big blowout affair. The Colonel was the first male in his family to reach 70 years and everyone was excited.
There were many peaks and valleys with weather, predators, fences and fire over the years but the Colonel and the Shetlands hung in there. There is one valley I will not forget. It was in early May of 1989. Ginny called to tell me that the Colonel had died. He had been busy working at one of his sideline business, doing what he loved to do.
We all owe this man a very special thank you. When you are out in the barn or pasture enjoying your Shetlands, think of the one special person who made it all possible, the Colonel.