Tuesday, September 28, 2010

# 3 ~ Riverdale Zoo and Farm, Then and Now

Toronto has been called a "City Within a Park", because of the large amount of green space within our city.  We might take our park land for granted, and in fact, we may even complain about it, because of all of the urban wildlife that we now have to cope with.  Whether we've encroached on their space, or they've encroached on ours, is up to debate, but if you've lived in the city for a short while, you've probably already come across raccoons, foxes, skunks, and maybe even the odd coyote.  Every now and again there are local news stories about small dogs being snatched up by coyotes, and even deer bounding into the urban core.

But several decades ago, there were polar bears, seals, lynxes and even elephants dwelling in the heart of downtown Toronto.  Their home was the Riverdale Zoo, now known more commonly as Riverdale Farm. 

In 1856, the City of Toronto purchased 119 acres for a public park, and several years later, in August of 1880, Riverdale Park was officially opened.  In 1888, a city alderman by the name of Daniel Lamb donated some deer to populate the park, and he certainly wasn't sheepish about encouraging other well-to-do Torontonians to give money to build up a municipal menagerie.  The collection of public beasts grew, and in 1894, Riverdale Zoo became the first zoological gardens for the City of Toronto.

Riverdale Zoo stood on the site of the modern day Riverdale Farm, south of Winchester Street, just east of Sumach Street, across from the Necropolis Cemetery.  It would be several years before the Prince Edward Viaduct (now more commonly known as the Bloor Street Viaduct) connected central Toronto with those remote, secluded areas east of the Don River.  The Don River Valley was a significant geographical boundary, which cut off the Riverdale neighbourhood and points east from the downtown Toronto core.  Riverdale Zoo, on downtown's eastern boundary, would have been an idyllic location for a weekend trip to Toronto's first zoo.

By 1902, the menagerie at the Riverdale Zoo included both a male and female camel, a pair of ocelots, a buffalo, a bear from Siberia, several species of birds, including a crane and sixteen pheasants, some lions, a hippopotamus, and six pens full of monkeys.  The Toronto Railway Company became a sponsor, paying for the construction of some of the zoo's buildings.  During the first weekend when the lions and the elephant were shown, the Toronto Railway Company had 20,000 customers travelling from across the city to come to the Riverdale Zoo.  The Toronto Railway Company was the first operator of horseless streetcars in Toronto, and was a precursor to today's Toronto Transit Commission (TTC), and their financial interests in the new zoo clearly paid off in increased ridership.

In retrospect, the conditions that the animals suffered through at the Riverdale Zoo were simply horrible.  There was little or no emphasis on biological or scientific education; the animals were oddities in dark and cramped quarters.  They were there for display purposes only, and modern zoo-goers would have been horrified.  All of the cages were far too small; at one point, a wolf who inhabited the zoo was kept in a house built for a small dog.  In 1949, a committee was struck to develop a new, modern zoo, but things didn't develop until the 1960s.  The Metropolitan Toronto Zoological Society was formed in 1967, and the city council bought land near the Rouge River for a new zoo.  Construction started in 1970, and four years later, in August of 1974, the new Metropolitan Toronto Zoo opened to Toronto's public.  The environments were built for the comfort and well being of the animals, instead of their human visitors.  Their habitiats were made more natural, and the animals were grouped according to geographical setting.

As the sun set to the west of the old Riverdale Zoo on the last day of June, 1974, it closed is gates to the public, and all the animal residents were eventually transported ot the new Metropolitan Toronto Zoo.  Many of the original buildings were destroyed.  Over the next four years, the site was redeveloped, and the site reopened in September of 1978 as the Riverdale Farm.  Today's Riverdale Farm houses domestic farm animals that would have been found on farms throughout Ontario around 1900.  Today there is much more of an emphasis on education and the proper appreciation of animals.  There are special programmes and demonstrations for families, school and day camp visitors.   Today, Riverdale Farm has become a unique Toronto attraction, and offers residents and visitors a glimpse into farm life, in the heart of Toronto, the City Within a Park.

THEN : The entrance to Riverdale Zoo in 1928.

THEN : Visitors to Riverdale Zoo in 1907.

THEN : The elephant pen at Riverdale Zoo in 1913.

THEN : The Polar Bear pen at Riverdale Zoo in 1913.

THEN : The monkey cages at Riverdale Zoo in 1913.

THEN : Visitors to Riverdale Zoo in 1913.

THEN : Visitors to Riverdale Zoo in 1913.

THEN : A lynx at the Riverdale Zoo, 1914.

THEN : Polar Bear cub, Riverdale Zoo, 1914.

THEN : Polar Bear, Riverdale Zoo, 1914.

THEN : Seals, Riverdale Zoo, 1914.

THEN : Caribou, Riverdale Zoo, 1914.

THEN : Heron, Riverdale Zoo, 1914.

THEN : Seal, Riverdale Zoo, 1914.

THEN : Heron, Riverdale Zoo, 1918.

THEN : Fowl play at Riverdale Zoo, in 1920.

THEN : Yaks at Riverdale Zoo in 1920.

THEN : Nesting birds at Riverdale Zoo, 1926.

THEN : Nesting birds at Riverdale Zoo, 1926.

THEN : Polar Bear cubs, Riverdale Zoo, 1926.

THEN : Polar Bears, Riverdale Zoo, 1922.

THEN : Riverdale Zoo elephant 1922.

THEN : The Riverdale Zoo cassowary in 1923.

THEN : Visitors to the Riverdale Zoo elephant pen in 1923.

THEN : The tame raccoon handler at Riverdale Zoo in 1923.  Perhaps raccoons were considered more exotic then?

THEN : Riverdale Farm in 1925.

THEN : Riverdale Farm polar bears, 1926.

THEN : Young herring gulls at Riverdale Zoo in 1926.

THEN : Riverdale Zoo's Canada Geese in 1926.

THEN : Riverdale Zoo bird cages in 1926.

THEN : A visit to Riverdale Zoo from the nearby Sackville School in 1926.

NOW : Riverdale Farm in 2010.

NOW : Riverdale Farm in 2010.

NOW : Riverdale Farm in 2010.

NOW : Riverdale Farm in 2010.

NOW : Riverdale Farm in 2010.

NOW : Riverdale Farm in 2010.

NOW : Riverdale Farm in 2010.

NOW : Riverdale Farm in 2010.

NOW : Riverdale Farm in 2010.

NOW : Riverdale Farm in 2010.

NOW : Riverdale Farm in 2010, with the spire of the Necropolis Cemetery chapel in the centre background.

NOW : The polar bears, elephants, lynxes and even the tame raccoon are gone, and Riverdale Farm is now home to agricultural animals.

NOW : a hog at Riverdale Farm.

NOW : horses at Riverdale Farm.

NOW : a goat at Riverdale Farm.

NOW : a cow at Riverdale Farm.

NOW : Riverdale Farm's donkey.


  1. Wow, that raccoon handler is a total badass. I would not want to get that close to a raccoon!

  2. I just pray and hope that the people take
    especially good care of the animals, after all,
    you must remember that the animals are confined -
    no freedom.

  3. We were just there on Monday ... what a difference!