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, boarded an eastbound College streetcar. Changing streetcars again at Parliament Street, we travelled north a short distance on a Parliament streetcar, which then rumbled eastward along Winchester Street. Within a few minutes, we alighted at the end of the line, at Sackville Avenue. After we walked one block east to Sumach Street, my brother and I were truly excited when we realized that we were at the entrance to the Riverdale Zoo.
We spent an interesting afternoon there, a visit I was never to forget. The entrance was not particularly impressive, but the popcorn and toffee-apple venders near the entrance 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, which coursed their way through the grounds in the decades when it was the city’s main zoo. It required very little imagination to picture the zoo that I remembered from my childhood.
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 made us indifferent to the smells. Many of the cages were quite small, which allowed the animals to be easily seen, but allowed very little space for the animals to exercise or be active. I was amazed at how close we was able to get to them.
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 Victorian concept of displaying animals. 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.
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: www.lostrivers.ca—www.blogto.com – torontohistory.net
The home of Alderman Daniel Lamb on Winchester Avenue, across from the the site of the old Riverdale Zoo that he was responsible for creating.
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
Riverdale Zoo in 1925, gazing eastward toward the Don River. Photo from the Toronto Public Library, r-1211
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.
Walkway beside the cages at Riverdale Zoo in 1955. Toronto Public Library, r- 1128.
Riverdale Zoo in 1955, Toronto Public Library r- 1130
Monkey enclosure, Toronto Public Library, r-1126
Eastern side of the zoo in 1952, beside the Don River, Toronto Public Library r-1235
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.
The elephant enclosure at Riverdale Zoo, Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 0555.
Polar bears at the zoo on May 26, 1926. Toronto Archives, Fonds 1231, Item 0467
Brown bear at the zoo in 1955, Toronto Public Library, r- 1156
Visitors at the zoo in 1955, Toronto Public Library, r-1124.
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For more information about the topics explored on this blog:
The publication entitled, “Toronto’s Theatres and the Golden Age of the Silver Screen,” was written by the author of this blog. It explores 50 of Toronto’s old theatres and contains over 80 archival photographs of the facades, marquees and interiors of the theatres. It relates anecdotes and stories by the author and others who experienced these grand old movie houses.
To place an order for this book:
Book also available in Chapter/Indigo, the Bell Lightbox Book Shop, and by phoning University of Toronto Press, Distribution: 416-667-7791 (ISBN 978.1.62619.450.2)
Another book, published by Dundurn Press, containing 80 of Toronto’s former movie theatres will be released in June, 2016. It is entitled, “Toronto’s Movie Theatres of Yesteryear—Brought Back to Thrill You Again.” It contains over 125 archival photographs and relates interesting anecdotes about these grand old theatres and their fascinating history.
Another publication, “Toronto Then and Now,” published by Pavilion Press (London, England) explores 75 of the city’s heritage sites. This book will be released on June 1, 2016. For further information follow the link to Amazon.com here or contact the publisher directly: