7 News Archive

The Riverdale Zoo

By George Rust-D'eye Seven News, April 12, 1975

For the first 65 years of Toronto’s existence, zoological gardens were not placed very high on the list of municipal priorities. The first such facility recorded in the City was Alderman Harry Piper’s Zoo, which commenced about 1872.

This zoo was once situated at the north east corner of Front and York Streets, the later site of the Queen’s Hotel, and then the Royal York. It also occupied for a time the Crystal Palace in the Exhibition Grounds.

A drawing from the Evening Telegram in the 1880’s showed Harry Piper's Zoo at the Front and York site. It was an open-air production, with a neat row of pens in which were placed the various attractions, such as “large bear, small bear, monkeys, parrots, eagles, elephants, and whale”.

One can only speculate as to how the parrots and eagles were prevented from flying away, or how the whale was kept happy in view of the fact that he was laid out on the ground without a drop of water in sight! There was also a beaver and water-fowl pond and a Theatre on the grounds.

At some point in time, the Piper Zoo came under the auspices of the Toronto Zoological and Acclimatization Society. In 1888 a public poll was taken to decide whether or not the citizens wished the City to purchase and maintain the collection of animals and curiosities belonging to the Society, as an adjunct of one of the public parks and as a free exhibition for the education of the people.

The voters turned down the proposal by a vote of 982 to 248. Thus the idea of a zoo in a public park was laid to rest, and was not revived until ten years later, when Alderman Daniel Lamb appeared upon the scene.

We will see later how Alderman Lamb founded the Riverdale Zoo, but first, let us return to earlier times to trace the development of Riverdale Park.

Most of the land which now comprises the Park was purchased by the City in the 1850’s for the establishment of a Gaol and Industrial Farm. At that time, of course, the site was far away from the populated areas of the City.

In 1863, a portion of the Farm bounded by Winchester, Sumach, Carlton and the Don River, was sold by the City to the Trustees of the Toronto Necropolis.

However, by 1875 the surrounding area had become “thickly populated”, and local citizens strongly objected to the use of this land as burial ground. The City therefore decided to repurchase the property and to include it as part of what was then known as the “Eastern Park”.

In 1876, the City held a competition to solicit creative plans or the laying out of various parks in the City. The winning plan for the Eastern Park consisted of a system of gravelled paths, a pond and waterway with islands finished as rockeries, the building of rough-cast lodges at the five entrances, and ornamental fountains to be erected near Sumach Street.

The park was to be re-named “Phoenix Park”.

It is not known how many of these ideas were actually implemented. Certainly the name “Phoenix” didn’t catch on; the park continued to be known as “Eastern” or sometimes “Riverdale” until the late 1870s. On August 11, 1880, “Riverdale Park” was officially declared open.

Most of the work involved in preparing and laying out the grounds of Riverdale Park and the present site of the zoo, was provided by a nearby source of ready labour, the Don Goal.

Year after year, from the 1870’s through to the 1900’s, the Commissioner of Parks and Gardens joyfully recounted the number of manhours of prison labour spent on maintaining and improving the site.

Fill was obtained in the form of refuse collected by the City Scavanger Department. Trees, flowers and grass were planted and fertilized with manure from the Eastern Stables, a contribution of the City Streets Commissioner gratefully acknowledged by the Property Commissioner in his Final Report of 1897.

Available records do not indicate with precision the date of commencement of the Riverdale Zoo. Jesse Middleton, in his “History of the Municipality of Toronto”, published in 1923, states that the first acquisitions for it were made in 1894.

It appears that the first exhibition of animals at Riverdale occurred in 1899. Certainly it is agreed by everyone that the zoo was made possible through the efforts of Alderman Daniel Lamb, who enlisted the co-operation of other public-spirited citizens in providing the zoo with its first animals and enclosures for their accommodation.

The first residents of the zoo were two wolves and a few deer, hopefully housed in separate pens from one another. These pioneers were, in 1899, joined by sixteen pheasants and two ocelots.

In 1901, J.W. Flavelle improved the pheasantry and donated three pairs of Canadian Wood Ducks, and a Chester D. Massey donated a polar bear along with a polar bear pen.

In 1902, Alderman Lamb was commissioned by the Toronto Street Railway Company to purchase a young elephant named “Cap” as its donation to the zoo. That Company also, in 1902, arranged for the erection of “a large two-storey building of Morrish design built of stone and pressed brick with a tile roof”. This attractive building later named “Donnybrook”, stands with its north-facing turret near the end of Carlton Street.

At one time there was an ornamental cannon in front of it pointing toward the north-west. There was also originally an iron fence built in 1896, enclosing the area bounded by Winchester, Sumach and Carlton. Of this fence, only the stone gate posts remain. They were once surmounted by ornamental lanterns.

1902 also saw the addition to the zoo of a pair of African lions, a male camel and a female dromedary. The latter animal found that the climate didn’t suit her, so she was sent back for replacement.

The Dominion Government donated a fine buffalo bull from Banff National Park. Unfortunately there was no proper accommodation for him, so he spent his first year in the deer paddock. This humiliation was later compounded by his being given a Polled Angus cow to run with until a buffalo cow could be found!

In 1902 the zoo also acquired six pens of various kinds of monkeys, a Siberian bear and a young female crane to mate with one presented the year before. On the weekend that the elephant and lions were first shown, the Toronto Street Railway carried 20,000 people to the zoo.

By 1905, the zoo boasted sixty-one animals and a great number of birds of various kinds. And so the zoo continued to improve over the years. More buildings were added and more people came to visit the animals. Sometimes 15,000 people would attend on sunny Sunday afternoon.

Gordon Sinclair, who once lived in the area, remembers seeing elephants, llamas, camels allowed to run at large on the Don flats.

The zoo remained a City and neighbourhood institution until 1974, when on June 30th, at sun-down, it closed its gates for the last time.

The City has now decided to re-open the Riverdale Zoo site to the public as a 19th century animal farm. Plans call for an actual gothic-style farmhouse and English-style barn to be acquired and moved to the site.

An old “Pennsylvania” barn has already been purchased. The “Donnybrook”, which has been recommended by the Review Committee of the Toronto Historical Board for listing is likely to be retained, for the time being.

As plans now exist, it will probably stand in the middle of the cow pasture. Most of the remaining buildings are to be torn down, though fortunately the beautiful little duck house and bridge at the bottom of the hill are to be kept.

Hopefully the resident ducks, geese and goldfish will stick around. For them and for us, Riverdale Zoo is gone but not forgotten.

This article was published in Seven News, Volume 5, Number 21, April 12, 1975