An Opening Day to … Forget?

I have long puzzled over why I have no recollection of the August 15, 1974, opening day of the new Metro Toronto Zoo. It was the day we had all been working toward, and yet, it is as though I was never there. Then, as I looked back at my diary and notes, it hit me. I was too busy working.

In the days leading up to the grand opening, I was a senior keeper in the Americas section of the zoo. This included an indoor pavilion, a large polar bear complex with underwater viewing, and a South America paddock. The pavilion was largely underground, and it held the most diverse collection of animals a senior zookeeper could be expected to care for, including mammals (beavers, otters, cacomistles, and more), birds (band-tailed pigeons, native songbirds, waterfowl), reptiles (alligators, rattlesnakes), and fishes. In the days and weeks leading up to opening, and especially on opening day itself, we were still frantically preparing exhibits and receiving animals.

Most of the animals had been quarantined and stockpiled at barns and holding facilities all over the area. From mid-July right through opening day, animals poured into my area—a pair of cacomistles and a jaguarondi from the Claremont Barn, six armadillos from the south service building. a Mississauga rattlesnake that was donated and eight alligators from the Riverdale Zoo. We received three skunks, fourteen quail of three different species from Kirkham’s Barn, two fox snakes, seven box turtles, and a diamond-backed terrapin. a huge alligator, eighteen songbirds, and an otter. We were scrambling to get animals introduced to their new accommodations and to each other. And when opening day came and went, our challenges continued.

A few days after the grand opening, for example, we received nine prairie dogs, and as soon as they were released into their outdoor space, they promptly did what prairie dogs do—they dug holes and disappeared underground. Unfortunately, that was the last we saw of them for a while. My notes reflect our concern for their well-being. A week after their release, it was noted that the prairie dogs had not been seen, nor were they coming out to eat. We watched and waited, but finally, a month  later, we could wait no longer. We dug them up. We could only find five of them, but they were all asleep–apparently hibernating in anticipation of the coming winter.

The last notation in my diary about the Riverdale Zoo was when we transferred six polar bears to the new exhibit on October 17. This transfer included the two males, Amos and Andy. These bears were, as I recall, more than twenty years old, and they did not adapt well to their spacious new home. After being introduced to the new exhibit, they fell into the dry moats that served as invisible barriers three times over their first few days.


pronghorn 1If I kept diaries after 1974, they are lost. I do recall being assigned to a new area known as the Canadian Domain. This period was one of the most event-filled times at the zoo, but one of my least well documented. The Domain opened in 1976 and occupied several hundred acres of the Rouge River valley section of the property. Animals were in large naturalistic areas and were viewed by a futuristic, electric monorail train.

We developed areas for bison and pronghorn, moose and elk, white-tailed and mule deer, grizzly bears, and wolves. We even fenced in a rocky cliff for a herd of white big-horned sheep known as Dahl’s sheep. Accessing this remote area was challenging. We drove four-wheel-drive trucks, and when heavy snow built up, we even had snowmobiles.

Toronto Winter 1977 -78My memories of those years are like faded images from an old album. I do recall:

  • The white-tailed deer named Patricia that had been hand-raised and remained tame enough to pet like a dog, but the babies she bore every spring remained as wild as march-hares.
  • The pronghorn that were captured in Alberta as infants and hand-raised but were barely tame enough to approach.
  • The herd of plains bison that had to be captured out of a five-acre pen and shipped out to make room for a new herd of wood bison from western Canada.
  • The two zookeepers that I had to write-up with disciplinary reports because they cracked the windshield of their truck while playfully tossing frozen bison turds at each other.


When the Metro Toronto Zoo opened its 710-acre “zoogeographic” zoo, organized around groups of animals from the same parts of the world, it may have appeared to be in line with world-wide trends, but it was, in fact, ahead of its time. It would be another ten years before other zoos began to catch up with Toronto by opening large indoor facilities like the Bronx zoo’s Jungle World the Brookfield zoo’s Tropic World. No other zoo took the zoogeographic theme to the level of the Toronto Zoo, with its huge continental areas of Indo-Malaya, Africa, the Americas, and Eurasia. Each area had an indoor pavilion that was a combination zoo, aquarium, museum, and botanical garden.

Michael Robinson, director of the Smithsonian’s National Zoo for sixteen years in the 1980s and 1990s, was an advocate for the concept of the BioPark, a place that would combine elements of existing zoos, aquariums, natural history museums, and botanical gardens. Robinson, it might be said, was ahead of his time in predicting what the modern zoo strives to be. Few zoos have reached that goal. The Toronto zoo is one that did—nearly fifty years ago.


Next month: We will begin our look at a Good Sized Zoo in the Sunshine State.

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