Bright Side of Business: Award puts ‘Little Ray’ among the ‘legends’ of the zoo and aquarium world

Paul "Little Ray" Goulet says he's just a "12-year-old living in a 51-year-old body," excited about sharing his love of nature with others. Photo submitted
Editor's Note

The Bright Side of Business is presented by Star Motors.

After coming through the nightmare of the pandemic, Paul ‘Little Ray’ Goulet is living beyond his wildest dreams.

Goulet is the director and owner of Little Ray’s Nature Centre, the largest exotic animal rescue in Canada with locations in Ottawa, Hamilton, Edmonton and Syracuse, N.Y. Goulet opened the centre in 2000 with his wife. What started as a humble operation quickly became known for its efforts in conservation; to date, it has rescued more than 8,000 animals. 

Despite this, Goulet was caught off-guard when he was named the 2022 Zoo/Aquarium Professional Of The Year by the Canadian Association Of Zoos And Aquariums. 

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“It makes me want to cry — I get goosebumps,” Goulet says. “It’s still quite overwhelming because of everything that we went through.” 

Goulet didn’t know that his name had been thrown into the ring for the award, an honour reserved for legends in the industry, Goulet explains. 

“(During the award ceremony), they start reading the description (of the winner),” Goulet recalls of the event, which took place in October in Kamloops, B.C. “I had no idea they were talking about me. People at my table were crying.” 

Eventually it sunk in. “I’ve literally had this epiphany,” he says. “I am now the senior statesman. I’m the guy with 27 years in our industry (who) young people are looking up to.”

It’s no secret that the pandemic blindsided Little Ray’s Nature Centre. With 96 per cent of its revenue gone, the business borrowed $1.65 million to stay afloat and re-mortgaged the building. 

While things are better now, it’s still a struggle. Goulet says the business is paying back $264,000 in loans per year, a staggering number when you consider that the biggest profit the business has ever made is around $300,000. He explains that, while the business has made up to $5 million in revenue in the past, most of that is invested into the centre and various conservation projects. 

“I’m not in the business to make money,” Goulet says. “It’s not what motivates me to make a salary. I love what I do.

“I’m really just a 12-year-old living in a 51-year-old body,” Goulet says. “(I’m a kid) who is just really excited about nature, education and in sharing my passion for the things I’ve learned.” 

When the pandemic hit, the community didn’t hesitate to rally behind Goulet and his team, donating just under half a million dollars. 

“We kept all of our full-time staff, nobody lost their job,” Goulet says. 

For Goulet, the award demonstrates what he’s always told his team: the “higher-ups” are watching and they’re rooting for Little Ray’s Nature Centre. 

Goulet is open about the mental health challenges he faced during the pandemic, with immense pressure coming from all angles, including animals that would have to be euthanized if the centre closed. He had staff who had dedicated 22 years of their lives to the centre and faced the possible loss of his home, where he lives with his wife and their 12-year-old triplets. 

“You can only be under so much stress for so long,” Goulet says, adding he’s found a therapist in Ottawa who is helping him unpack his anxieties. “I’m at the point where I’m starting to feel that (sense) of being invincible, at least from the standpoint that you cannot take away my ability to provide for my children.”

There’s more good news on the horizon. Before the pandemic, the centre had a contract with the Boston Museum of Science, but the deal fell through when COVID forced museums to close. Recently, the U.S. contact popped back up again and wants to explore a six-month contract with Goulet’s team. 

“They are super excited to be working with us,” Goulet says. “If nothing else, (it) gives you a ton of hope, I can tell you.” 

The Bright Side of Business is an editorial feature focused on sharing positive stories of business success.

This column is presented by Star Motors, Ottawa’s original Mercedes-Benz, Mercedes-AMG and Mercedes Van dealer.

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