Paul ‘Little Ray’ Goulet is finally able to breathe – but just barely.

Goulet and his wife Sheri run Little Ray’s Nature Centre, which was buoyed recently by a last-minute federal government loan that saved both the Ottawa and Hamilton locations from closing. However it will take a lot of time and hard work before Canada’s largest exotic animal rescue centre and the many different creatures it cares for are out of the woods.

“Mentally, the last three weeks have really been taking a toll and I’m struggling to get my pants on in the morning,” said a clearly still-emotional Paul Goulet, just days after Glengarry-Prescott-Russell MP Francis Drouin announced Little Ray’s would receive a $366,050 loan through the Federal Economic Development Agency. “I think the last couple of days, I’ve really started to be able to kind of reset and refocus and start to move forward.”

Little Ray’s has been virtually without revenue since being forced to close almost one year ago by the COVID-19 pandemic. While both nature centres have now reopened, visits to the sites account for only about seven per cent of revenue. Museum and educational programs – all of which have been shut down by the pandemic – make up the bulk of Little Ray’s income.

Meanwhile, staff costs, food and other expenses are still needed for the more than 800 animals in Little Ray’s care. It’s an impossible situation for a business which has never before asked for help.

“We’ve never even applied for a grant in 26 years. We’ve taken a great deal of pride in being able to generate taxes and provide a service to the country in all provinces,” explains Goulet, emphasizing every effort possible has been made to cut costs. “Our staff is working so, so hard to save every dime they can.”

“These are people who will go to the ends of the earth for the animals.”

The loan’s approval came after Goulet made an emotional appeal in a Facebook video which has since gone viral. Little Ray’s had been waiting on approval of the federal loan since last December and despite fundraising support from the public, the centre was days away from closing. At a February 8 bottle drive, where he was to film a thank-you video, Goulet instead exploded in frustration.

“Our staff started doing a bottle drive and I went in there to thank people for all of their generous donations of bottles,” he recalls, admitting the emotions overcame him as he watched his staff sort through thousands of bottles. “I told one of my staff to go live on Facebook and he looked at me – he knew something was wrong.”

While losing his cool might not have been the best strategy, it apparently worked. As the Facebook post racked up hundreds of thousands of views, Goulet began to receive hundreds of messages and phone calls of support from private citizens and other businesses.

“I got calls from gym owners, wedding venue owners, restaurant owners, and coffee shops from across the country – it really went viral,” says Goulet, who believes the video greatly sped up the loan approval process.

The loan from the Federal Economic Development Agency is the second for Little Ray’s Nature Centre, which received the same amount in June of 2020. Those funds were to cover operations into December, while the current loan will support operations and care of the animals until June 15.

Although interest-free, the loans must be repaid over time and that will affect Little Ray’s future operations in a big way. In the past, the centre has used profits to expand – adding new exhibits, the Hamilton location and increased educational and conservation programs over the years. Before COVID-19 hit last March, Little Ray’s focus was on growth.

“We were on pace to having our single best year in the history of our company, with museum contracts both in Canada and the U.S.,” Goulet sighs. “We’ve invested a lot of money over the past four years.”

“I’m very thankful for (the loan) – it’s backstopped us. But we’ve now – between this and the CERB program – borrowed $915,000.”

The support he has received from the community and from across the country has been a bright spot for Little Ray’s. In addition to local fundraisers, the company has received almost $350,000 in online donations through two GoFundMe campaigns.

“Oh my God, you can’t believe how much (the support is appreciated),” Goulet says. “We had over 200,000 bottles come in from our bottle drive. The number of people who have stopped by and donated bottles, or handed me $40, is unbelievable.”

The fundraising goal of the current campaign is $840,000, which is needed on top of the loans already received to ensure the nature centre can operate through 2021 without its usual revenue stream. Anyone wishing to donate to Little Ray’s can do so at GoFundMe. You can also visit the Little Ray’s Nature Centre Facebook page and webpage to obtain more information.

With the most recent crisis temporarily averted for the business he and his wife started in the national capital 26 years ago, the father of 10-year-old triplets wants to focus on his young family.

“They’re very aware of when their dad is not 100 per cent present with them,” says Goulet of his three daughters. “I want to be present with my children when they’re at home.”

Little Ray’s provides educational seminars for schools and museums across Canada and the United States.

Glengarry-Prescott-Russell MP Francis Drouin (left) announced February 11 that Little Ray’s Nature Centre would receive a loan through the Federal Economic Development Agency. The loan will provide enough funds for Little Ray’s to operate through June 15.