Series 71, It. 5868  May 1923. -Riverdale-Entrance[1]

Riverdale Zoo in Riverdale Park in May 1923, Toronto Archives, Series 71, Item 5868.

In the 1940s, on a hot Sunday afternoon in summer, my dad took my brother and me on a mystery streetcar trip. Not knowing the destination, our excitement increased as we travelled south on a Yonge streetcar to College Street, and then, climbed aboard an eastbound College streetcar. Changing streetcars again at Parliament Street, we travelled north a short distance on a Parliament streetcar, which proceeded to rumble eastward along Winchester Street. Within a few minutes, we alighted at the end of the line, at Sackville Avenue. After walking one block east to Sumach Street, my brother and I became truly excited when we saw up ahead the entrance to the Riverdale Zoo. 

The afternoon was one that I was never to forget. Admittedly, the entrance was not particularly impressive, but the popcorn and toffee-apple venders near the entrance certainly caught my attention. Entering the gates, the grounds seemed immense. Today, I wonder if this was due to a child’s perspective, as many things appeared larger when we were children. However, revisiting the site in 2016, I realized that it was indeed quite a size. The old pathways remain today and still course their way through the grounds as they did in the decades when the site was the city’s main zoo. Visiting it now, it required very little imagination to picture it as it was when I was a child.

On that afternoon in the 1940s, we commenced wandering along the many paved walkways that meandered among rows of cages where the animals were exhibited. It was a hot day and the odours from some of the cages were not very pleasant. However, the excitement of seeing live animals from exotic climes around the world made us indifferent to the smells. I was amazed at how close we were able to get to the animals and as many of the cages were quite small, the animals were in clear view. However, the confined spaces allowed very little room for the creatures to exercise or be active.

The floors of their cages were cement, with grooves at the edges that allowed the water to quickly drain away after they were hosed by attendants. Members of the zoo’s staff were cleaning some of the cages while we were viewing them, occasionally spraying some of the animals to cool them off. The exhibit buildings had outside viewing areas, as well in interior spaces, where visitors entered during the winter months, when it was too cold for the animals to be exposed to the frigid Toronto weather.

We watched the monkey enclosure from outside, where people were throwing food to the animals. The monkeys were quite bold, eagerly stretching their arms through the bars of the cages to beg for treats. Then, we entered the inside of the building, as a few of the monkeys had not ventured out. Continuing to stroll the grounds, we approached the lion cage. I had never seen a live one before, although I had viewed one that had been stuffed, mounted, and placed in a glass display case at the Royal Ontario Museum. The aviary at the zoo contained what seemed like thousands of birds, and from inside the building, the noise was deafening. The reptile pavilion was much quieter, but I found the snakes frightening.

I was amazed at the size of the elephants, but felt safe near these animals as I had read several Babar the Elephant books that I had signed out from the library. The crocodile was in a cement pool with murky water that had turned green with algae, but it seemed to enjoy the soda crackers that a young boy threw to it. When the reptile opened its jaws to snap at the food, its huge teeth looked even larger and sharper than those I had seen in the Tarzan movies at our local movie theatre.

In the 1940s, I did not think about the cramped cages and pens at the Riverdale Zoo, or that the animals were not protected from people performing pranks, feeding them unhealthy treats, or poking them with sticks. In that decade, most zoos around the world retained the same concept of displaying animals as in Victorian times. They were kept in an environment that was alien to them, like freaks in a freak show. The cages and pens were designed for the pleasure of those who viewed them, with little thought given to the creatures’ natural habitats. Very little was done to encourage the animals to be active.

1952-- pictures-r-1150[1]  wolf- 1952- pictures-r-1229[1]

The lion cage in 1952 (left), Toronto Public Library r-1150, and a wolf in a dog house in 1952, Toronto Public Library, r- 1229

History of the Riverdale Zoo

In the 1790s, the town of York (Toronto), was a small settlement clustered around the eastern end of the harbour. During the 19th century, it slowly expanded, even though the Don Valley created a natural barrier to eastward expansion. However, as the city grew, city council realized that more parkland was needed to accommodate the ever-increasing population.

In 1852, city council authorized the purchase of 119 acres of land from the estate of John Scadding, to create a city park and an industrial (jail) farm. Prisoners from the Don Jail, who were not considered dangerous as they had committed minor offenses, were to be forced to maintain the farm site and the park. The facilities were located on the west bank of the Don River, Winchester Street on its northern boundary. However, the green space was not opened to the public until August, 1880, after prisoners from the Don had improved the grounds by landscaping them.

In 1888, Alderman Daniel Lamb, a resident of the area, donated a few deer to the park. Then, he encouraged wealthy citizens to donate funds to purchase other animals and  through his efforts, more animals arrived. In 1889, the first exhibition of animals was held. To improve and expand the area where the animals were displayed, in 1890, the jail property was legally separated from the park. As well, more land was purchased, extending the size of the park to 162 acres. The Toronto Railroad Company (TRR), a precursor of the TTC, which had become a sponsor of the zoo, provided funds to erect a two-storey Moorish-style building. It opened in 1902, and became known as the Donnybrook. By this time, the zoo had acquired a considerable collection of animals from all over the world.

Also in 1902, the zookeeper’s cottage was also built. The same year, another elephant (named Princess Rita) was brought from Bombay, India via New York City, and two more lions were purchased. During the same summer, the Toronto Railroad Company transported 20,000 people to the zoo. Its donation of funds for the Donnybrook had resulted in handsome dividends for the transit company. 

As the decades passed, animal rights activist began agitating for improved conditions for the animals. It finally became obvious to city council that a new zoo was required. On June 30, 1974, the old Riverdale Zoo closed and the animal were relocated to a vastly improved facility in the Rouge Valley, its entrance on Meadowvale Road. The buildings and cages at Riverdale were demolished, except for the zookeeper’s cottage, the tower of the Donnybrook, and a small white pavilion at the bottom of the hill near the river.

The new Toronto zoo opened on August 15, 1974. The site of the old Riverdale Zoo was renovated and opened as the Riverdale Farm on September 9, 1978.

Sources:— –


The home of Alderman Daniel Lamb on Winchester Avenue, across from the the site of the old Riverdale Zoo. Lamb was responsible for creating the facility.


The zoo keepers cottage (the Residence) built in 1902, one of the few buildings surviving from the old Riverdale Zoo.


Riverdale Zoo c.1915, Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 646

1925 - pictures-r-1211[1]

Riverdale Zoo in 1925, gazing eastward toward the Don River. Photo from the Toronto Public Library, r-1211

gates on Winchester, 1955  pictures-r-1158[1]  DSCN0454

Entrance to the Riverdale Zoo (left photo) on Winchester Street in 1955, Toronto Public Library, r-1158. The right-hand photo is the entrance in 2016. 

1955,  pictures-r-1128[1]

  Walkway beside the cages at Riverdale Zoo in 1955. Toronto Public Library, r- 1128.

1955-- pictures-r-1130[1]

            Riverdale Zoo in 1955, Toronto Public Library r- 1130

monkey enclosure, 1955  pictures-r-1126[1]

                   Monkey enclosure, Toronto Public Library, r-1126

Riverdale Par, Zoo, 1952--pictures-r-1235[1]

Eastern side of the zoo in 1952, beside the Don River, Toronto Public Library r-1235

Donnybrook pictures-r-11331952-- [1]

The Donnybrook, photo from the Toronto Public Library, r- 1131952


The tower of the Donnybrook, which survives today in Riverdale Farm. Photo taken in April 2016.

F1244,  item 0555   Riverdale-Elephant-Alr[1]

The elephant enclosure at Riverdale Zoo, Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 0555.

F 1231, Fl.1231, It. 0467 May 26, 1926.  -Riverdale-PolarBears[1]

Polar bears at the zoo on May 26, 1926. Toronto Archives, Fonds 1231, Item 0467

            brown bear, 1955 - pictures-r-1156[1]

   Brown bear at the zoo in 1955, Toronto Public Library, r- 1156

                  1955 - pictures-r-1124[1]

               Visitors at the zoo in 1955,  Toronto Public Library, r-1124.

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10 thoughts on “The old Riverdale Zoo—Toronto

  1. I don’t remember the layout or the look of the zoo, but what I always remember: as a child, at night, if the wind was right, I could hear the lions roar, a kind of lullaby for me. We lived at 488 King St. East, but moved away in 1953 or ’54, up to the Oakwood & Eglinton area. No lions roaring there! One memory I do have though is of the park that was home to the zoo, and Sunday afternoons there with my Mum and Dad. — Carol Stephen

    1. I can always remember after school we would go to the Toronto Zoo my friends and me we would sneak in I always love the Monkees and the Gorillaz especially the one named Curious George I went one time going there and guys were working on the bars that parently he tried to escape he got out of the first set of bars and he was working on the second set of bars when he died of a heart attack I was told as a kid I remember seeing his girlfriend in the cage beside and she look very sad but I’ve always loved the the monkeys the gorillas in the chimpanzees they were my favourite part of the zoo has a kid of 6 years 7 years old at the time

  2. I was born and raised in Cabbagetown, and spent many days at the Riverdale Zoo. The two most entertaining creatures at the zoo were Georgie and LooLoo. I can’t remember if they were chimpanzees or gorillas, I was young and small and they were old and big. I’m trying to find a news article of the shooting of the Kodiak bear that took place in the 60’s at the zoo. I remember seeing a bullet hole in the concrete wall where the shooter missed his target.
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  3. I lived all my life at 147 Munro Street. The Don Jail was at the top of our street. I remember the Riverdale Zoo well. I also vividly remember hearing the peacock calls.

  4. My sister reminded me of an incident that happened in the 1960’s at the Riverdale Zoo. We would have been roughly around 3 and 5. My father took us to the zoo and one or more of the elephants got loose. He was holding my sister, and I was holding his hand. He took us behind an open door as it or they ran through it. Because we were so young I wasn’t sure if this was a true memory, until my sister mentioned she remembered it. I looked on line, but couldn’t find anything on it. I was just wondering if anyone else had information or remembered this incident.

  5. I lived on Winchester St., right across from the Riverdale Zoo, as a child. I remember the lions roaring at night, and the sound of bears fighting. The wolves would howl at night, during mating season. Sometimes the elephants or hippos would bellow. The sea lions always sounded so happy. My big brother and I absolutely loved it!!! My mother thought it was very funny that a group of irate people had gotten together to petition city hall or the police dept. demanding that the zoo do something to keep the beasts quiet. They also complained about the odors emanating from the cages outside the zoo property. My favourite animals were a pair of polar bears. As I got older, I realized how horrible, cramped and cruel the cages were for the dear creatures. I was so very thankful when the zoo was enlarged, improved and moved to north Scarborough, where these beautiful wild animals could at least live in a better environment.

  6. I don’t know how many people know where the Bald Eagle in the Riverdale Zoo came from. I too went to the Riverdale Zoo when I was young. Little did I know my Great Grandfather Walter Raine’s pet Bald Eagle was an inhabitant of the zoo. It’s new home became the Riverdale Zoo when Walter Raine could no longer take care of it. I might have been told when I first visited the zoo that a Bald Eagle that once lived there, belonged to Walter Raine my Great Grandfather, but I don’t remember. It was my second cousin once removed William Raine Stewart who told me that indeed my Great Grandfather Walter Raine,s pet Bald Eagle was on display at the Riverdale Zoo.

  7. As to my last post, posting is something I’m not familiar with. If you think it is necessary to edit what I gave you, do so. In other words you can replace ” my second cousin once removed ” with relative. Also, I don’t know how many Bald Eagles were at the Riverdale Zoo but one of them was the pet of my Great Grandfather Walter Raine. Walter Raine is one person you should know about. Walter Raine died 26 July 1934. This isn’t a post just a note to you if you wanted to make any changes to my post about the Bald Eagle.

  8. I’m not sure if I finish off my last message properly. If it is necessary, please replace ” my second cousin once removed ” with the word relative if you think it is necessary. I really don’t know how many Bold Eagles there were at the Riverdale Zoo, but I do know one of them was my Great Grandfather Walter Raine’s pet Bald Eagle. This isn’t a post, just a note to you to make any necessary changes to my post. Walter Raine is a person you should know about. He died 26 July 1934 in Toronto, Ontario.

  9. Hello. I don’t know if you are going post what I composed a couple of days ago. If you are then please edit out the name William Raine Stewart and use the name Doug not William Johnston as the name of the commentator. I have a picture of the Bald Eagle I was talking about. This eagle has a white head. The Bald Eagle on your site is different. If you want to see what Walter Raine’s Bald Eagle looks like, sent me an email address so I can send it to you. Thanks. This isn’t a post but a request for you to edit my first comment. As I said, I don’t know how many Bald Eagles the Riverdale Zoo had but know that one of them once belonged to Walter Raine.

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