Toronto’s Riverdale Zoo – a social infrastructure lost

Zoo patchTorrential rain had rendered the site all but impassable when I first visited the new Metro Toronto Zoo in June 1973. For my interview tour, we were forced to navigate long runways of planks and plywood over thick, oozing, boot-sucking mud in order to move around the various construction sites that dotted this massive project. I had come from Busch Gardens in Tampa, so I was accustomed to “big,” but this was big on a different scale. It was not just wide-open spaces, but a series of immense pavilions, each with a unique design that would one day immerse zoo-goers in a lush, zoogeographic landscape of plants and animals.

postcard-toronto-riverdale-park-zoo-pen-area-c1910By that time, Toronto’s old zoo at Riverdale park was little more than an animal holding facility. It was being closed and many of the cages had been abandoned. The Riverdale zoo’s first animals went on display in 1899 in conditions that were typical of zoos in this era. Animals were kept in cages and pens that were much too small but afforded the best views for visitors. By March of 1902, the inventory included ocelots, a camel, a buffalo, six pens of monkeys, a Siberian bear, and more. The Toronto Star reported on the pending arrival of an elephant and a couple of lions.

Conditions improved at the zoo over the decades, but by the 1960s, the small cages and concrete outdoor runs were hopelessly out of date. Upon completion of the new Metropolitan Toronto Zoo in August 1974, the old Riverdale zoo closed and most of the buildings were eventually torn down. Riverdale Farm, the successor to the zoo, opened in 1978, specializing in rare breeds of farm animals.

In his recent book Palaces for the People, author Eric Klinenberg suggests that parks—and, I would argue, zoos—are part of a community’s social infrastructure. They are the glue that binds communities together and the spaces that shape the way we interact. The Riverdale Zoo was an element of Toronto’s social infrastructure in the Cabbagetown neighborhood for seventy-five years. It was a place that allowed Torontonians to interact with one another while building relationships and memories.

It seems sad to me that while many zoos around North America celebrate one hundred years of history, the Toronto zoo’s first seventy-five years have disappeared. Although the animals were better off being moved, a rich history has been lost to the ages. I am also struck by how eerily similar the history of the Toronto zoo (one of my 1st zoos) is to my final zoo in Albany, Georgia. The Riverdale zoo and the Tift Park zoo, separated by two thousand miles and a national border, share similar stories of an old zoo that vanishes while a new one is born in another part of town.

In October 1977, when I was working at Toronto’s new zoo, Albany, Georgia was also closing its zoo and transferring animals to more spacious quarters. Albany’s Tift Park was founded in 1909, a few years after the Riverdale zoo opened, and the Tift Park zoo sprang up sometime in the 1930s. In the late 1960s, residents of both Toronto and Albany were becoming uneasy with their aging zoos. Closing them down seemed the best option.

TheMenagerie_ebookThe Menagerie: A Zoo Story    Now Available

A wonderfully written story.  Symbiosis, the Journal of the Association of Zoo and Aquarium Docents

One of the most original pieces that I have read. [It] changed how I view zoos and has given me a new found respect for the work that goes on to keep them afloat.  Online Book Club


Fonds 200, Series 372, Subseries 41 - Miscellaneous photographsThough I had little contact with Toronto’s Riverdale Zoo and have forgotten much of what was there, I do recall the old polar bear enclosure. It was about fifty or sixty square feet with a concrete floor that was mostly taken up by a large, circular pool. Its heavy iron bars reached a height of ten or twelve feet, and since it was open-topped, the bars curled inward at the top in an upside-down U-shape that terminated in sharp tips. I don’t know when it was constructed, but I have seen a photograph of the exhibit with two cubs in residence and the date “May 25, 1926” scrawled across the bottom.

Zoo animal collections in those days were what we might call “postage stamp” collections. Zoo directors took pride in having one or two of every kind of animal they could get their hands on—with little thought to animal welfare or humane treatment.

In the1970s and 1980s, we were learning about animals in their natural habitats from field biologists like Jane Goodall and from documentary television programs like Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. Governments were passing legislation to protect wild animals and wild places as zoos created education departments and explored new concepts in animal exhibit design.

The renaissance of zoos during this period usually took one of two paths. Many communities found ways to adapt and expand on their current sites. Some, however, considered it preferable to move their zoo to more spacious property. That meant simply closing the old zoo (like Riverdale and Tift Park) and doing away with the old cages.

In Albany, having a state park with hundreds of acres of wooded property a couple of miles down the road probably made the move of the zoo a foregone conclusion. The City of Toronto was on a similar trajectory that launched in 1963 when city leader Hugh Crothers was shocked enough by poor conditions to convince the city to build a new zoo. He was elected as the first chair of the new Metro Toronto Zoological Society when it was formed in 1966. A site-selection study was completed in 1967, and the Glen Rouge area of Scarborough was selected. Owned at the time by the Metropolitan Toronto & Region Conservation Authority, the site consisted of 125 hectares (310 acres) of tableland and 162 hectares (400 acres) of forest in the Rouge River Valley. The task of creating a world-class zoo brought into play the talents of many people and more than twenty million dollars in funding. In 1970, Dr. Gunter Voss, former director of Assiniboine Park Zoo in Winnipeg, was appointed director, and the clearing and grading of the new site began. Dr. Voss was, as I recall, an eccentric individual—and nowhere was that eccentricity better displayed than how he went about hiring me.

Next week: Kicked, Bitten, and Head Butted

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