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A brief history of the Riverdale Zoo

Posted by Chris Bateman / May 18, 2013

toronto riverdale zooToronto Zoo might get the pandas nowadays, but the land now occupied by Riverdale Farm used to be the city's premier animal watching institution. For 75 years Riverdale Zoo was home to a bizarre menagerie of wild and exotic creatures, including elephants, hippopotamuses, monkeys, and sea lions.

The historic Cabbagetown attraction closed for good and was partially demolished when the Metropolitan Toronto Zoo opened in 1975. Today, all that's left of the once thriving Victorian wildlife park with its decidedly dubious animal care policies is a scattering of historic buildings and a landscaped green space.

toronto riverdale zooThe land east of Winchester and Sumach streets that's now Riverdale Farm was once part of the estate of Henry Scadding, an early landowner on the Don River. In 1856, Toronto purchased a section his property for a new park and an industrial farm to be maintained by inmates at the Don Jail on the other side of the river.

The 162-acre landscaped area officially opened in 1890 on top of a pile of garbage and manure landfill that had been carefully prepared by the prisoners. Four years later, thanks to the efforts of the zoo's founder, Daniel Lamb, a city alderman and local resident, the city had acquired two wolves and a small herd of deer for public display. These would be the first pieces in a gigantic collection.

toronto riverdale zooThe creatures first went on display in 1899 in small purpose-built enclosures. As you might imagine, the conditions were fairly bleak. Zoos in the Victorian period were more like curiosity shows than anything we'd be familiar with today and many of the animals were kept in pens that were patently too small but had the benefit of affording the best views for visitors.

Reading the Toronto Star, it's clear the zoo experienced an overwhelming amount of animal donations. A headline printed in March 13, 1902, reads "The Elephant Coming." Animal dealers working under the direction of Alderman Lamb had arranged for shipment of a second Indian elephant from Bombay via New York. Two lions were added to the same request.

The city's newest pachyderm was given the title "Princess Rita" on her arrival in Toronto. Zoo officials, who were often a mix of parks staff and inmates at the Don Jail serving time for minor crimes like vagrancy, taught Rita to carry people on her head. One of her first excursions was a wobbly ride down the public road to the Winchester Street bridge. "She has developed an awkward habit of lying down and rolling over when her load gets troublesome," the paper noted.

toronto riverdale zooThe new lions weren't as happy in their new surroundings. One of them caught a cold and "snarled at everything from his straw bed to a red-headed boy in the throng of visitors." Alderman Lamb, still involved in the day-to-day management, fed him cod liver oil, and it appears to have recovered.

Without modern vets, the mortality rate among shipped animals was extremely high and there was always a risk the creatures wouldn't reach their destination. One steamship, the Buerania, carrying animals destined for the circus, lost three elephants, 100 monkeys, 26 "boxes of snakes," and hundreds of birds in a single voyage.

In 1902, the inventory at Riverdale included sixteen pheasants, two ocelots, a male camel, a dromedary, a bull buffalo, six pens of monkeys, a Siberian bear, a crane, lions, and a hippo. George H. Rust-D'Eye in Cabbagetown Remembered says 20,000 people crammed into the zoo the first weekend the elephant and lions went on display.

That same year the Moorish-inspired Donnybrook building was built and using funds from the Toronto Railway Company. During its construction one of the zoo's hippos sat down on a wet cement floor, leaving behind a substantial divot. The building is one of the few structures that still remains at Riverdale today.

Riverdale Zoo relied heavily on private donations to keep its herd expanding. Rattesnakes, Rocky Mountain badgers, porcupines, and a tiger were offered "almost faster than cages can be built for them." One aged lion, apparently a burden to management, "still fools the public by refusing to die" and free up enclosure space, it was reported.

toronto riverdale zooIt would be unfair to say there were no objections to the way animals were handled at the zoo. The Humane Society complained about the elephants being "shackled by one leg" in small enclosures. The cold weather posed challenges too. A winter house protected the most vulnerable creatures and radiators were installed in some cages as a measure of protection against the elements.

The animals took their revenge when they could. In 1905 a bull buffalo protecting its cow and calf charged at a group of workers, sending them scrambling up trees. The group was trapped for half an hour before someone could distract the beast long enough for them to climb down.

Monkey teasing was another popular pastime for visitors. Everything from cigars to ice cream would be passed through the bars to the excitable little critters, and they occasionally snapped at stray fingers. One provoked elk was so frustrated by a group of visiting boys that it mortally gored its mate. Dr. Mole, the aptly named veterinarian, was forced to euthanize the wounded beast.

toronto riverdale zooIn another bizarre incident, the resident pelican had 15-inches its beak bitten off at the wolf enclosure during a ill-advised visit. Unpeturbed, a doctor from the cat and dog hospital successfully grafted a duck's bill to the bird using horsehair. It seemed to work, and the animal was able to eat diced fish normally.

"Indeed, the pelican's bill will be stronger than ever," the Star reported. "It will combine the weapon of the duck with its own liberal organ."

toronto riverdale zooPerhaps the most shocking example of Frankenstein engineering almost occurred in 1918. The early morning bellows of the zoo's sea lion had become a nuisance to local neighbours, so superintendent Frank Goode proposed a solution: surgically remove its vocal chords. "If we can give Torontonians a sea lion without a noise we will do it," he said.

It's not clear from the wording in the police blotter, but it appears one Sunday when the animal was mercifully silent a man named Tully Naumoff appears to have been arrested in the park and fined $5 plus costs for mimicking the barking sounds normally heard from the animal's cage "for the ladies."

Thankfully, the Humane Society were just as vociferous, and the animal was saved from the surgeons scalpel by the acting parks commissioner.

toronto riverdale zooConditions improved at Riverdale over the decades but by the 1960s the tiny cages and concrete outdoor runs were hopelessly out of date. On completion of the new Metropolitan Toronto Zoo, Riverdale closed for the last time at sunset on June 30, 1975, and much of the buildings were torn down.

Riverdale Farm, the successor to the zoo, opened in 1978, specializing in rare breeds of regular farm animals. No sea lions, thankfully.

FURTHER READING:

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toronto riverdale zootoronto riverdale zootoronto riverdale zootoronto riverdale zootoronto riverdale zootoronto riverdale zooChris Bateman is a staff writer at blogTO. Follow him on Twitter at @chrisbateman.

Image: City of Toronto Archives

Discussion

10 Comments

pup / May 18, 2013 at 09:08 am
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Intently depressing, yet at the same time very interesting.
rmdubs / May 18, 2013 at 09:38 am
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Really interesting. Thanks for this!

(In middle paragraph above the photo of the polar bear with his head in a ring - "beast" not "beat.")
jb replying to a comment from pup / May 18, 2013 at 11:19 pm
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Have to agree :(
M. Greco / May 19, 2013 at 12:07 am
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Riverdale Lion, a poem by John Robert Colombo:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Opx_yPRbg34
norm / May 20, 2013 at 10:34 am
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Chris, this place was indeed sad & depressing to experience, but as children, we were excited about seeing these "exotic" animals up close. I remember people taunting and throwing things (mainly food bits) at the bears. I think all caring Torontonians were relieved when this poor excuse for a zoo was finally closed.
Fig / May 21, 2013 at 09:34 am
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Interesting article Chris. I didn't know anything about the history of Riverdale Zoo.
Clare / June 5, 2013 at 11:21 am
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Certainly one of the challenges which people starting a new on-line company face is that of acquiring visitors to their net site.
Watch / June 5, 2013 at 11:24 am
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Nice post, it's very useful for me, thanks for sharing!
Handbag replying to a comment from Watch / June 5, 2013 at 11:28 am
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Very interesting post. really informative. of all the blogs I have read on the same topic, this one is actually enlightening.
Ted Genova / August 20, 2013 at 07:39 pm
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I remember going there as a kid in the early sixties.I was used to going every Sunday with my Dad to the High Park zoo. We had a grocery store in the Kingsway and at that time you could feed the animals
So I always had great offerings from the store..like lettuce trimmings and carrot tops. We were very
popular with animals because most people brought stale bread. I particularly liked.feeding the big bison bull and "Stinky" the camel. He was poisoned with exlax by some jerk and died. Everyone was upset.
The also had wild boar, although they were in the back and rarely on view. Going to Rverdale Zoo was a
once a year afaire. I usually asked for it as part of my birthday present and my dad would round up all my friends, take us to theZoo, while mom made a party at home. The Zoo was the only place to see exotic animals and as a kid, it was a step up from High Park. There were lions, bears and elephants.
I loved all the animals. As iI grew up I realised, as did everyone that the conditions were deplorable.
Our collective treatment of animals there was also our shame. I remember confronting some jerks who were pouring soft drinks over the bars tothe bears below. They were not amused. Another time I was at Riverdale with my parents and my brother. We became separated and a gang of bullies attacked mybrother. I was a little guy but I remember finding a big stick thar it wielded at them. The cowards eventually fled. Cabbagetown was a rough neighborhood them. No gentrification. Those are my memories of Riverdale for what they're worth. It was a magical place for a kid if not for the animals, but
I do not miss it.

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