Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

The Goat People

Folks in Coombs are fond of all manner of things -- including goats, parrots and massive Chinese stone carvings

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PARKSVILLE, B.C. -- It's a cold, foggy and soggy Sunday morning, the kind of gun-metal grey that descends on Vancouver Island each winter and makes the explosion of colour from these most unlikely residents that much more startling.

The World Parrot Refuge, a 2,100-square-metre metal facility in this town midway between Nanaimo and Port Alberni, is a retirement home for previously owned parrots who have been surrendered from families across Canada.

Unlike dogs and cats, parrots can live as long as 75 years, making them a difficult animal for people to look after, said Wendy Huntbatch, co-founder and president of the For the Love of Parrots Refuge Society, the organization behind the refuge.

So the refuge now cares for about 900 birds and is open to the public every day of the year, with admissions offsetting the $2,600 in annual heating costs alone to care for them.

The location of the refuge in this village prompts the question "Why here?"

Except the question could be asked of many of the attractions in Coombs: Why have a market with goats grazing on the roof? Why have a business in the centre of town featuring massive granite and marble carvings from China?

Even in winter, when the market is closed, the goats gone and the Coombs Emporium quiet, there are still things to do.

No matter what time of year, those who stop their vehicles on the way west to the famous Cathedral Grove of enormous old-growth pines will get the chance to experience some unique activities. In winter, there is the advantage of a respite from the summer crowds.

Officially an electoral area in the Regional District of Nanaimo, Coombs is an unincorporated community of about 1,500 people, located west of Parksville, B.C., and along the Alberni Highway.

At the parrot sanctuary, visitors can see the facility's special-needs unit, housing elderly parrots suffering from heart problems, cataracts and blindness, said Huntbatch.

But there are also newer birds, like cockatoos, macaws, African greys and Amazons, and the world's largest parrot, the hyacinth macaw.

Huntbatch said there's even a section where people can stand among the flying birds.

"The best thing to do is not come wearing your very best clothes," she said. "Because when parrots land on you, it may not look the same when you leave as when you came in. And they do love jewelry, so do be careful."

Huntbatch said she's seen visitors walk in and out within 45 minutes, while others have stayed the entire day.

Continue toward the village's centre and tourists will find the emporium and its display of massive art, seemingly out of place in the country environment.

Joseph Lee, 37, said there are 20 to 25 pieces, carvings of lions, giraffes and Buddhas, some weighing as much as nine tonnes and taking as long as seven years to make.

He said his family, who has owned the emporium for about 36 years, brought in the carvings to draw people to the business, and the art has now become part of the community.

Inside the emporium is a gallery and a gift shop, displaying wooden carvings as well.

"You can relax," he said of those who visit in the winter. "You don't have to worry about fighting through people. You can just have a look and enjoy yourself."

Lee acknowledged the goats on the market roof are the community's main tourism draw.

The Old Country Market has taken the idea of a green roof to its next logical conclusion -- green maintenance.

According to the market's website, the facility was conceived by Kristian Graaten and his wife, Solveig, in the 1970s after they emigrated to Vancouver Island with their children from Norway in the 1950s. After running a roadside fruit stand for a while, construction of the market began.

Sod roofs are not uncommon in their native Lillehammer. But the website notes it was the weekend of the Coombs Fall Fair, the grass was long and a member of the family -- perhaps with some wine as inspiration -- suggested the family get goats to "mow" the grass.

The beasts have been there ever since on market days. The facility is currently closed for the winter and the goats are somewhere else until late February.

Across the courtyard, looking onto the dozens of carved statues, is Vickie Adams and her shop Sweet Treats candy, which opened last year.

Adams, who said she has lived her whole life in the area, notes much of what she sells, especially the chocolate, she has made herself.

-- The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 16, 2013 D3

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