EDWARDS - Brian McGowan never dreamed his farm would be home to some of the world's rarest and most exotic animals. Now, he can't imagine life without them.
McGowan and his wife, Betty, house more than 200 birds and animals of 40 different species, including a camel, ostriches, wallabies and llamas, and several rare species, such as Newfoundland and Indian ponies and Unimproved Bronze Turkeys.
The couple owns a host farm for Rare Breeds Canada, a federally incorporated and charitable organization that strives to conserve, evaluate and study rare, endangered and minority breeds of livestock and poultry.
Among the rarest of breeds on the McGowan and Girls farm is the Indian Pony. There are only 37 such animals in the world, the youngest being a foal born at the Experimental Farm in Ottawa last spring. The McGowans have three of the ponies on their farm, two mares and a stallion. One mare is due to foal this month, while the other will have a baby in spring.
"We would like to see them returned to the First Nations people, but it's going to take a long time to get their numbers up," he says. "I'm sure you've heard this a lot, but extinction is forever and we're trying to prevent that from happening with these animals."
The Indian ponies originate from Manitoulan Island, where the sheer number of them once created a nuisance for the inhabitants and they were shipped off "by the hundreds" to be slaughtered and used in pet food, McGowan said.
During the 1970s, there were only five of the species remaining, four mares and a stallion. The feisty male was shot by a priest who lived near their grazing grounds and the mares, two of them pregnant, were taken to Gheen, Minnesota. The ponies McGowan houses are descendants of those mares.
The Newfoundland ponies are also rare, though they once dominated the province known to many as The Rock.' When anti-roaming laws came into effect in Newfoundland during the mid-1970s, nobody wanted to pen the animals, which had until then run free. So the ponies instead met the same fate as the Indian ponies and were shipped off to the mainland to be used as animal food on fox farms, leaving only a small herd remaining. There are now only 231 in the world and the McGowans are hoping to help raise that number a little higher. They house a stallion, mare and foal at their farm.
The small flock of Unimproved Bronze Turkeys, known to some as Ridley Bronze Turkeys, is also a rare breed, McGowan says. Though he couldn't say for sure how many of the birds still roam the earth, he admitted it wasn't very many.
The birds were once a common sight on farms, but have since been improved through genetics and selective breeding, filling out their chests and developing into the plump, meaty birds that make the centrepiece of our Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners. Because these birds are unimproved, and hence don't have the rich, tender meat on their chests, they are considered useless to turkey farmers, McGowan says.
Another rare find is the Virgin Island sheep, otherwise known as the St. Croix sheep. These snow-white animals have hair instead of wool, they are parasite-resistant, and can stand extreme heat, unlike the sheep we see today. There are only five known flocks of these sheep in the world.
And the host farm itself is a rare find, Betty says. There are only 14 in Ontario.
"It's hard to find because the animals don't fit into the modern standards of agriculture. It is difficult to be a Rare Animals Canada breeder because you have to be dedicated."
The purpose of a Rare Breeds host farm is to preserve the genetics of a species and to increase the numbers of the population under controlled circumstances, she said.
Many of what are today rare and heritage animals were common on most farms about 150 years ago, Brian McGowan says. But the increasing demand for animal meat, skin and fur has pushed many species aside because they don't produce the dollar value.
A good example of this is the Barbados black-bellied sheep. These animals were the main choice of food for the African slaves because they're small and compact. It made a perfect meal in a time when what was cooked at night was either eaten or wasted as there was no way to store it, said Betty McGowan. But because the small, flighty sheep have no wool - instead their bodies are covered with a coat of hair - they have no value in the eyes of modern sheep farmers.
Jacob sheep serve as another example. With large, multiple horns on both the males and the females, these animals are hard to keep as they inadvertently tear apart fences and feeding troughs. They have wool - often spotted and a mixture of black and white - but it can't be dyed easily, which makes it a tough sell in today's market.
Several of the animals on the McGowans' farm are not rare by any means, but still out of the ordinary.
One such animal is the capybara. It looks like a oversized groundhog with a large snout and webbed feet. At full growth, these animals can weigh up to 200 pounds, Brian McGowan said. It is related to the guinea pig family, making it the world's largest rodent
"One thing that makes this animals interesting is, when Catholics were bored of their routine diet of fish during Lent, they requested the capybara be recognized as a fish in order to add some variety to their meals because it lives on land and water," said McGowan. "The request was granted and it is still recognized as a fish by the Catholic Church."
Three Zebu cows, standing less than three-quarters the size of a regular, full-grown cow, also live at the McGowan farm. The grey natives of India are not classified as rare, though they are not common in North America, McGowan says.
As he walks through his backyard, calling out the animals by name and affectionately stroking the furry heads that poke over the fence, it is easy to tell that animals always have been, and always will be, a big part of McGowan's life.
He and his wife both grew up on farms; he on a Clydesdale horse farm and she on a dairy cattle and horse operation.
They owned a sheep farm together, and he worked for 37 years with Ontario Hydro until a quadruple bypass operation slowed him down, and they sold some of the sheep.
But the two had an interest in rare animals and had been working with Agriculture Canada for a few years, testing crops for weed control and assisting with research for tobacco replacement crops.
They started their unusual farm in 1993 with the purchase of a few emus, and haven't looked back since.
In addition to hosting rare and heritage animals and testing crops for Agriculture Canada, the McGowans run Life O'Reilley Petting Zoo, which visits fairs and festivals over Eastern Ontario. McGowan brings a variety of animals to the events, giving young and old the treat of seeing, feeding and petting animals they didn't even know existed.
The McGowans' grandchildren visit the farm regularly, and can recite the importance, origin and habits of nearly every species of animal living there.
"We decided when we were building up to this that if you can find it on a regular farm in Ontario, you won't find it here," McGowan said. "And I think we succeeded in that."