Lesley Avant: The Retiree
Once upon a time, the Saskatoon Zoo Society was an all-volunteer organization. Then, as our activities grew and changed and more and more people took advantage of our services to educate about the animals, habitat and conservation, the City of Saskatoon, through the site manager of the time, Gus Vandepolder, saw fit to put us under contract with a small grant to do educational and event programming. As part of that we were also given the opportunity to have a membership that would allow folks to enter the zoo as a courtesy of that membership, thus giving us operational funds. We were also then given the task to staff the zoo entrance gate and run the rudimentary food concession.
Our Board Secretary at that time was Lesley Avant. She had retail experience as she had managed the Hudson’s Bay store pet department for a number of years, taking care of the various small animals, the famous mynah bird, and ordering and selling stock for the shop. So in 1989 the Saskatoon Regional Zoological Society (our old name) was given the contract to staff the zoo gate and do our best to try to provide food services to the public. And so, Paws Inn was born. The building was and is totally inadequate for this but she persevered and through hard work and wonderful staff over the years she managed to make the entrance the welcoming face of the site. Her staff were always well informed about the zoo and animals and always willing to answer questions. It was a thrill when we eventually had enough funds to purchase the popcorn machine — still one of the more popular food items. Prices were kept reasonable so that people did not feel gouged by being a ‘captive audience’.
Entrance to the zoo was often a bottleneck with lines out into the parking lot on a busy weekend day. At one time there were two coin-operated pony rides to keep kids busy while waiting in line. Everything at that time was cash only! No debit cards or credit cards were accepted as the technology did not exist out there.
One of Lesley’s dreams was to have a zoo-themed gift shop and so a small section of the concession was turned over to t-shirts, plush toys, and souvenir items – as much as could be squeezed into the tiny space allotted to it. It was hard to have a great turnover and most things had to be kept behind the counter because of the possibility of hands sticky with food residue damaging the merchandise. One of her memorable days in the mid 1990s was a group from northern Saskatchewan that had taken part in an educational program. The lead teacher was so impressed with this and had some funds left over from the trip finances that she then bought t-shirts for all 32 people on the trip to help support the Saskatoon Zoo Society. The largest sale ever to that date! By and large people have been wonderfully supportive of both the food concession and the gift shop when they realise that the funds help the Saskatoon Zoo Society in our efforts to provide quality educational programs.
The Saskatoon Forestry Farm Park and Zoo finally got a stand-alone, exit-through gift shop two years ago and Lesley was in her element deciding on layout and merchandising and what new stock to carry now that there was space.
Lesley has been and still is committed to customer service and teaching the public about the wider world and the animals that we share it with. After 29 years she is now ready to leave the business aspect behind (she was only going to do that job for one year!). Her hard work and dedication will truly be missed. She loved working with all her staff and is still friendly with many who worked for us while they were in high school and university students and who have since gone on to their chosen careers.
Even while working, Lesley still put in volunteer time in animal enrichment and weekly care of our outreach/education animals and helping with some of our educational activities. After some well-deserved R and R time, we know that Lesley will be back to help in our important efforts to fulfill our mandate to educate and advocate.