By: Maria Taylor
My vision blurred as my glasses began to fog as I walked into the humid garden. I heard the birds chirping and the water running as I gazed upon everything that came my way, sweat pooled on my forehead as I go in deeper, I was immersed in this indoor jungle.
Butterfly Gardens is a tropical oasis hidden in the farmlands of Brentwood Bay just outside of Victoria. I would have never guessed that if I continued down Interurban road, I would eventually end up passing an indoor jungle holding an abundance of insects, butterflies, plants, and animals. Happily, immersed in this humid environment I interviewed Justin Dunning the Living Collections Manager at the Butterfly Gardens. He told me all about his job, experiences, and the plants and the animals that he cares for on a daily basis. This small 12,500 square foot attraction has an abundance of stories within its walls where it is home to some amazing creatures; let us dive in.
Justin has worked for Butterfly Gardens for the past six too seven years. Since before he could remember he’s been obsessed with animals and nature. If it was catching snakes, bullfrogs or turtles and having them as a pet for the summer. In high school, he started breeding different kinds of fish. This passion followed him, and others began to notice. His biology teacher saw his interest in nature and gave him some clippings from plants for him to try and grow. This made Justin’s passion grow from animals and move more towards plants. He took this combining the two and made it into his career by taking a greenhouse program. Justin also began to collect more carnivorous, and tropical plants and his passion continued to blossom. After spending some time in Ontario, he eventually moved out to Victoria and applied for a position at Butterfly Gardens, and he, of course, got it.
Compared to other butterfly sanctuaries, butterfly gardens does an immaculate job with creating an open-air environment for guests and the animals. When I first walked in, I noticed that they have a beautiful hand-crafted wooden table filled with fruit set out for the butterflies to snack on. After that, I turned left, and my journey began, exploring all the tropical plants and animals. I felt immersed in the jungle with all the plants, and trees surrounding me as I walked the stone path toward the tortoise enclosure. Justin and his assistant prune the plants so that guests can hardly see the walls of this indoor jungle.
As Justin and I spoke he told me all about the animals that they have at Butterfly Gardens. About 75% of the animals they have are donated by people who feel that they would take better care of them. The two flamingos, Mango, and Houdini who just turned 40 came from Crystal Gardens after it closed around 15 years ago. They just had around 20 coy fish donated to them last month, and they just had some more tortoises donated. Previous owners do come back and visit their old pets when they have time. Each of the animals has a different personality. Justin knows them so well he can tell if the blue and gold macaw parrot Shadow is hungry, wanting attention or just talking. Another one of the birds Leo, used to choose a favorite employee and follow them around, he now likes to be by himself. Even the tortoises all have different personalities. When you spend so much time with the animals you get to know them very well like the Eclectus parrot Little E.
Justin told me that Little E is one in a million and has a very charismatic personality. He is the highlight at the gardens for many guests, and many times when people post about butterfly gardens on social media, they will mention him. Little E is a lady’s man and will only land on women, he has stolen the hearts of many guests while they are at Butterfly Gardens.
Justin does more than feed and care for the animals. He and his team are focused on guest interaction they want guests to be able to have the best time possible. Sometimes they will let children feed the coy fish on school tours, and Justin is more than happy to answer any questions guests have. He has a lot to do with the project design and layout of the gardens and is currently working on many projects. Butterfly Gardens has plans to expand their tortoise pen, so Justin is helping build this. He also wants to eventually introduce a snake enclosure. Justin works with such a small space. The public gardens itself is about 12,500 square feet and his back room where they have other species like ant colonies, insects, and caterpillars, is only six feet by twelve feet. Which is a very small area to work in compared to other similar enclosures. This can be seen as a setback, but Justin uses it to his advantage, in the garden anywhere I looked I was able to see an interesting plant or animal. Justin has big plans for this small space and wants to utilize every inch for guests to have a truly unique experience.
There are so many interesting plants and animals they care for. In the Butterfly Gardens they have an enormous bird nest fern Justin grew this from a spore eleven years ago and it grew and grew. With being able to work in a tropical environment he’s able to grow more and experiment than your average gardener. The gardens receive butterflies from all over the world, Costa Rica, Africa, and Asia to name a few places and they tend and care for these creatures. They also breed some of the butterfly species. When they do this, you can see the whole lifecycle of the butterflies from laying eggs, to turning into caterpillars, cocooning, and then the final stage, becoming a butterfly. This is interesting for the workers and guests.
Everyone at butterfly gardens has a passion for their job. Justin loves his job and has made friends with many of the guests as he loves to educate people on the plants and animals that they have. When people love their job, it makes guests experience that much better. Many people underestimate the Butterfly Gardens not knowing everything that they have to offer, and this is where they go wrong. Butterfly Gardens is a unique experience that you won’t be able to find anywhere else in Canada, their may be other butterfly sanctuaries, but nothing compares to this indoor garden tucked into the heart of Brentwood Bay.