Wildlife Park Flourishes on Hard Work and Customer Service
Doug Bos and Debbie Rowland never planned to be zookeepers. After almost accidentally falling into the role, the couple and their daughter now run one of central Alberta’s largest attractions.
Home to about 150 animals, Innisfail’s Discovery Wildlife Park welcomes about 40,000 visitors a year from May to October, and has grown from two employees to 18 since 2002. The park has won three Alto Awards and finished third this year in the Entrepreneurship Challenge at the Growing Rural Tourism Conference.
Its road to success has been paved with hard work, a passion for customer service and unbridled enthusiasm for social media.
“It takes a lot of dedication and perseverance,” says Bos. “And you have to be open to new things. I’m 61 years old but I can see how important it is to embrace new technology and new practices.”
An Accidental Calling
Originally trained as an electrical mechanic, Bos started looking for new opportunities in the 1980s after health issues forced a career change. Raised on a farm and devoted to country life, he started breeding pot-bellied pigs, miniature horses and the like.
Then, Alberta Fish and Wildlife approached him to take in some orphaned deer, moose and bear, and he obtained a zoo licence as a result. When a private zoo near Bon Accord closed in 1988, Bos took in its animals and opened Doug’s Exotic Zoo Farm near the village of Clive.
Fast forward to 2002 when Bos began plans to build a replica of Noah’s Ark as an entrance building. News of his idea spread, and the town of Innisfail suggested he relocate to a 90-acre site just off Highway 2. Discovery Wildlife Park was born.
“It was a huge milestone,” says Bos. “We had garnered enough public interest and credibility that a community was willing to take us in. It’s a much better location and we get a tremendous amount of support from the town.”
All About the Experience
Today, the park provides permanent homes for unfortunate wildlife – orphans that cannot be released back into the wild, exotic pets that have been kept illegally, unwanted pets and abandoned zoo animals.
It offers visitors daily presentations where trainers and their animals show off their skills, up-close wildlife encounters, educational programs and summer camps.
“Our approach is ‘less is more,’” says Bos. “We’re not focused on adding more animals, like many zoos are. We are all about enhancing the experience for our visitors and ensuring our animals are happy and healthy.”
Bos’s daughter Serena was trained by a professional Hollywood animal handler and is head zookeeper, poised to succeed her parents as owner/operators.
Unique New Products
After offering some limited camping last year, Bos is now building a full-service 65-site campground for RVs, tents and small cabins, as well as developing new packages for evening excursions. A stocked fishing pond has also been built.
“We found the average spend for a family camping was quite high, so we are starting to cater more to this market,” he says. “They can watch the animals while sitting at their campsite, and we are in a great location — just off the highway and perfect for day trips to attractions like Calaway Park and Sylvan Lake.”
Bos’s next project is to finally build his Noah’s Ark, providing space for offices and special events.
“I have lots of dreams,” he says. “I’d like to be able to extend the season and offer more winter packages, maybe even ice fishing derbies on the pond. And I’d love to have a Christmas light festival one day.”
Connected to Community
Bos is a big believer in the power of partnership. A former president of the Innisfail Chamber of Commerce and a member of the Red Deer tourism board, he works closely with other operators to cross-promote attractions.
He actively participates in tourism workshops, conferences and lectures, and regularly employs Travel Alberta resources, including the Cooperative Marketing Investment Program.
“They have really helped us market ourselves as a destination,” he says. “Even small suggestions like improving signage, creating tour packages and using photos on our menu at the concession stand have made a big difference.”
Travel Alberta has also helped Discovery Wildlife Park develop marketing tools for the international travel trade as they look to reach out to visitors outside of Canada at trade shows like Canada’s West Marketplace.
“With our economy right now, we need to focus more on the international market and on getting people to central Alberta, not just the Rockies,” says Bos.
Check out Discovery Wildlife Park’s business profile on travelalberta.com. Find out how to set up a profile for your own Alberta tourism business through ATIS, Travel Alberta’s free online marketing platform.This is the eighth in a 12-part series on Alberta tourism success stories.