Bears in Toronto

Originally published June 9, 2011

The intriguing connection between Bay Street and bears

This month, and for the remainder of this year, Heritage Toronto will attempt to publish blog articles in related clusters. The articles published this month are, as it stands, all written by Heritage Toronto blog writer and Etobicoke York Preservation Panel member David Wencer. More importantly, they are all connected by the presence of bears.

When David approached us months ago with an article on bears owned by “gypsies” and eventually sent to the Riverdale Zoo, our curiousity was piqued. To do justice to this great content, we suggested, we needed three articles, not one. Tell us more about the “gypsies”, we asked. Who were these marginalized people? And what was their fate? And tell us more about zoos in Toronto, too.

David kindly consented, and the results will be presented, over the next three weeks, one at a time.

We begin with the bears.

Gary Miedema, Chief Historian, Heritage Toronto

Article by David Wencer

Though bears no longer wander Toronto’s streets, they once did. In his 1873 book Toronto of Old, Toronto historian Henry Scadding claims that Bay Street was popularly referred to as “Bear Street” in the early 1800s “from a noted chase given to a bear out of the adjoining wood on the north, which, to escape from its pursuers, made for the water along this route.” Scadding also describes a wandering bear being attacked by G. D’Arcy Boulton‘s horses at The Grange, as well as an incident in 1809 on George Street in which a bear was killed by “Lieut. Fawcett, of the 100th regiment, who cleft the creature’s head open with his sword.”

In Spadunk, William Perkins Bull writes about the phenomenon of bear-wrestling, noting that “a tame bear chained to a pole was regarded as an important adjunct to an up-to-date pioneer tavern plant.” In the specific scheme described by Bull, one William Cooper, who owned a pub near Church and King, would give a demonstration showing how supposedly easy it was to successfully defeat the bear. This would in turn encourage inebriated men to take up the challenge, with a round of drinks for the audience on the line. Bull notes that “only a few outstanding champions of the countryside could really deal with [a bear],” making this a fool’s bet and indeed a very dangerous one. Cooper himself is said by Bull to have died of blood poisoning following such a bout.

Toronto World, February 23, 1913

In the 1880s, several bears were kept at Toronto’s first zoo, Harry Piper’s Zoological Gardens, including an extraordinarily large Russian bear nicknamed “Peter the Great.” Peter was one of the zoo’s more popular attractions, and several years later Piper recalled that “it was a good thing I happened to be here the time he grabbed Thompson’s arm. The man got into the habit of boxing through the bars with the six black bears in the next cage, and this time he tried it on Peter, and Peter just reached out, grabbed his arm, and crushed it in his jaws. We got him pried loose with bars or he’d have pulled the man to pieces. He lost his arm as it was.”

By the twentieth century, Toronto’s downtown had developed considerably, and bear sightings were generally limited to those in captivity. Thus, by 1910, a group of “gypsies” near Yonge and Eglinton were able to employ bears as a means of entertainment. Their bears are described as “giving exhibitions on the street”. The concept of a “dancing bear” was frequently connected with “gypsies” and eastern European immigrants in North American cities, and is reportedly still extant in some parts of the world today.

After the camp was broken up, the bears were temporarily housed at Cross’ Livery at 77 King Street West, between York and Bay. The bears were kept in horse stalls and were guarded overnight by an employee of the livery to ensure, as the Star wrote, that “that the bears were not allowed to leave the place under cover of darkness, unchaperoned.” The camp’s residents were, by this time, living with another “gypsy” camp near the Humber, but were “allowed their liberty to visit their bears at the livery stable and supply them with their daily allowance of bread and water.”

When the occupants of the camp left the Toronto area in early February of 1911, their goods (including bears) came into the possession of a group known as the Royal English Gypsies, who promptly sold the bears to a Mr. L. Strothers (one source gives his first initial as “T”) of 437 Sherbourne Street, who evidently purchased them with the intention of donating them to the Riverdale Zoo, the forerunner of the today’s Toronto ZooThe Star noted that these were Syrian Brown Bears, making them rather exotic and presumably a pleasant acquisition for the zoo.

No indication is given as to how much the bears cost the zoo’s benefactor. Much correspondence exists connected to Riverdale Zoo however there do not appear to be complete records or receipts indicating how the zoo acquired all of its animals. Bears were regular features at the Riverdale Zoo, and the zoo’s correspondence at the city archives reveal multiple instances of people in southern Ontario offering to donate or sell bears to the city.

The Telegraph: February 17, 1911

Following the sale, the animals were removed from Cross’ Livery one at a time and taken to the zoo at Riverdale. It was in this process that one of the bears, reportedly the largest of the group, escaped the four workmen engaged for the task and got loose on King Street. Followed by the handlers as well as a growing crowd of curious onlookers, the bear proceeded east to Bay Street, where it took refuge in the partially-demolished remains of what had previously been the Moorish Palace Hotel (referred to in one newspaper as “Smith’s Hotel”) at 55 King Street West. Three men entered the rubble in pursuit of the bear and eventually were able to corral and chain it, while the police struggled to keep onlookers from getting too close. The Toronto Daily News wrote that Officer Peter Kerr, “in trying to keep the crowd back from the entrance through the hoarding, was set on by the animal and thrown on his back. Prompt with clubs, the three who had the bear in charge battered it about the head and body and the wounded officer was speedily rescued. This incident only occupied about three seconds, but it was found the officer was severely bitten about the arm and leg.” Kerr went to the hospital for treatment, and a later update in the Telegram quoted Inspector Davis as saying that “some of the bones of his leg have been crushed and he may be off work for a couple of weeks.” The bear, meanwhile, was securely loaded back into the truck and taken to the zoo; the remaining bears were reportedly transferred without incident.

Mail and Empire, February 17, 1911

The last definite reference to these bears is on February 27, when the Riverdale Zoo announced it would have to euthanise one of the bears due to severe mange, and that all four bears were found to have wires in their lips, presumably put there by the members of the Yonge and Eglinton camp as a means of leading and securing them. The Star and Telegram both reported that this was considered cruel torture, and indicated that the wires would be removed. The Star quoted Park Commissioner James Wilson as saying “it will be difficult to do it because the bears are very effective with their paws and their heads will have to be lassoed and held firmly in order to get the pincers on the wires.”

In September of the following year, an attendant at the Riverdale Zoo named Charles Seymour was killed after being severely mauled by a bear named Flossie. Flossie was not one of bears acquired from the Yonge and Eglinton camp, being described in the Globe as a “Russian” Bear. Following the death of Seymour, The Globe quoted Park Commissioner Chambers as saying “the life of a bear is not to be considered with the life of a man. This bear was obtained from a showman and it is probable it was disposed of to us for a cause, though we had no evidence of this before. Poison will likely be the means of disposing of the man-killer.” A more-detailed account of the death of Charles Seymour at the Riverdale Zoo can be found in the 2011 issue of The York Pioneer, in the article “Tragedy by Riverdale Zoo” by Stephen Davidson.


Bull, William Perkins. Spadunk: or From Paganism to Davenport United. 1935: Toronto.
Davidson, Stephen. “Tragedy at Riverdale Zoo” in The York Pioneer, 2011, Vol. 106.
The Globe, February 4, 1911; September 2, September 12, 1912.
The Mail and Empire, February 17, 1911.
Scadding, Henry. Toronto of Old. Adam, Stevenson & Co., 1873: Toronto.
Toronto Daily News, February 16, 1911.
Toronto Evening Telegram, February 17, February 27, 1911; July 18, 1918.
Toronto Star, November 5, 1910; February 4, February 6, February 16, February 17, February 17, February 27, 1911.

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