Here at the Nature Centre we recognise that we are extremely fortunate to work adjacent to 300 acres of stunningly beautiful, natural habitat. We also recognise that the students at the local schools, and our neighbours in surrounding neighbourhoods share in this good fortune.
Imagine if you as a kid, had access to a place like the Gaetz Lakes Sanctuary. There are cool, dark forests; wide-open, bright grasslands; and of course the two lakes. All of these habitats work together to provide food, shelter, and habitat for the plants and animals that share them. You would have access to a place that has the ability to be either peaceful and serene, or vibrant and dramatic. It is a place that is good for nature, good for the community, good for the soul.
We take our stewardship of the Gaetz Lakes Sanctuary extremely seriously. We are charged with ensuring that the environments remain healthy, that the plants and animals are free to live their lives with minimal interference, and that the activities that take place in the Sanctuary are complementary to its well-being. We also strive to get as many people as possible outside and in nature.
We also want to ensure that as many people, of all ages, from all walks of life have the chance to enjoy the Sanctuary. We want people walking the trails. We want people using the viewing decks and the bird blind. We want people taking pictures, recording sounds, drawing and painting what they see, and immersing themselves in the experience of being in nature.
Over the past week one of our structures, the south viewing deck located behind Lindsay Thurber Comprehensive Highschool, was extensively vandalised. Beginning on Monday April 20, graffiti began to appear. We started photo-documenting the damage and posted the images to Facebook and Twitter; being very careful to not jump to conclusions about who may or may not be creating the damage. On Thursday morning April 23 we installed a motion-detecting, wildlife camera in a tree, overlooking the south viewing deck. At that time we again documented the existing graffiti.
On Friday, April 24 we took down the camera, documented the new graffiti that appeared while it was in place, and went back to the Nature Centre to look at the images. What we saw was a number of groups of teenagers, on the viewing deck, during school hours. These groups of people were the only people recorded on the deck during the period when new vandalism appeared. When we zoomed in on the images we saw scenes of people stashing things under the deck - we have since recovered a pipe used to smoke marijuana - and scenes of people using these items to smoke something, on the deck. Again, all during hours that school is in session.
On Monday of this week, we met with the LTCHS administration team to show them the images and try to work a solution to this problem. One of our larger concerns - and theirs - was that kids have been recorded breaking the law and then returning to class under the influence of an illicit substance. The Thurber team identified the people in the images as Thurber students, agreed that this was a serious issue, and that these actions, combined with the vandalism showed that the school wasn't being a good neighbour. Sadly the actions of a few kids were making 1700 students, their teachers, and the administration look really bad.
We left the meeting with assurances from the admin team that they would deal with the issue appropriately, have meeting with the students who were recorded on the deck, and set some ground rules for what students can and cannot do during school hours.
Please understand, this isn't about the Nature Centre staff trying to get people in trouble. We deliberately decided not to release the images we recorded, to the public. We don't want to shame people publicly, or have anybody take it upon themselves to deliver reprisals. This is about keeping the Gaetz Lakes Sanctuary as a place where everybody can go to enjoy nature. Preschool children from our preschool and the two neighbouring preschools use the Sanctuary during school hours. Seniors walk the trails during the day. We want all our visitors to use the Sanctuary appropriately and not put other users in an comfortable, dangerous, or adversarial position.
We are not in a position to comment on the announcement from Thurber admin. We appreciate them taking the situation seriously and attempting to assist us in solving this issue. If you would like to help us, please talk to your kids, to your friends and family, and to us about how best to enjoy the natural jewel that sits in the heart of our community.
And if you have any sandpaper, give us a call. We have some clean-up work to do.
All the best
The Kerry Wood Nature Centre team