Toronto’s First Zoo

By David Wencer, originally published June 22, 2011

When a whale carcass became an attraction

Part 1: Bears in Toronto
Part 2: Toronto’s “Gypsies”

The immediate predecessor of the Toronto Zoo was the Riverdale Zoo, which opened in 1894 at the site now known as Riverdale Farm, spearheaded by alderman Daniel J. Lamb. This was not, however, the city’s first zoo. Several years earlier a zoo was established in downtown Toronto by another city alderman, the enterprising Harry L. Piper, who served on city council from 1877 to 1880, and again from 1883 to 1888.

Cartoon of Harry Piper (Toronto World, February 16, 1913)

Harry Piper was the son of Noah L. Piper, a prominent Toronto businessman in the late nineteenth century who ran a home furnishings business on Yonge Street. After starting his professional career in his father’s company alongside his brother Edward, Harry soon left for a variety of ventures. He eventually settled into service with the Department of Inland Revenue, where he worked both as Inspector of Weights and Measures and as Inspector of Lighthouses.

Location of Piper’s First Zoo (Inland Rev. Office), (City of Toronto Archives)

His office with Inland Revenue was on Toronto Street, and it was while working there that he discovered an empty building in the nearby Old Post Office Lane, a building which he thought would “make a good show place.” Piper acquired the building, and then began building up a collection of animals to exhibit there, telling the Telegram “I got a couple of monkeys that were breaking up everything in the house of Mr. Joseph Prestman. They had been sent to his boys by a sea captain. Then boys in the country began sending me [rac]coons and young bears.” Although at least one secondary source dates Piper’s first zoo to as early as 1872, the first primary evidence of it appears in 1880, when it is referred to in several newspapers.

Notice about the formation of the Zoological Society (Toronto Daily Mail June 4, 1881)

By 1881, the collection of animals had grown too large for the venue. That June saw the first meeting towards the formation of the “Zoological and Acclimatization Society” which would serve as the zoo’s board of directors. Their first order of business was to discuss the removal of the animals to a new site at the northeast corner of York and Front Streets, extending east to where the Queen’s Hotel then stood. According to a 1929 booklet by Angus MacMurchy called Our Royal Town of York, the vacant lot at this site had previously been used by a travelling circus.

Location of Piper’s Second Zoo at York and Front (City of Toronto Archives)

The location at York and Front was described in Toronto Daily Mail as “comprising one acre, beautifully shaded by trees.” This was reported on the same page as another announcement, “The proceedings which were commenced a few days ago to have Mr. Piper committed for contempt of court in not removing the ‘zoo,’ have been abandoned.” This suggests that Piper was either running into legal difficulties at the Old Post Office Lane site, or that he may have been forced to leave by complaints from neighbours about the noise and smell.

Drawing of the Zoo (Library and Archives Canada)

In late June, Piper’s animals were relocated to the new site, and on August 1 of 1881 the new zoological gardens at the corner of York and Front had its grand opening to the public. A crowd gathered outside before the gates were opened, and many leading Toronto citizens made public appearances. The Toronto Daily Mail wrote that “the extent, the beauty, and the variety of exhibition astonished all visitors… on his leaving the platform Mr. Piper was encouraged with three cheers, the ladies waving their handkerchiefs. Everybody was pleased, and everybody determined to tell everybody else what a success it was.”

The zoological gardens remained a popular Toronto attraction through the 1880s. Noteworthy inhabitants of the zoo included “Peter the Great,” a large brown bear purchased from the Central Park Zoo in New York, two lions named “Romeo and Juliet,” and two elephants whimsically named “Sir John” and “Laurier.” There was a pond in the zoo’s centre, occupied by several water fowl and a beaver supposedly captured on the grounds of Colonel Denison‘s property; Piper recalled later that the beaver managed to escape from the zoo and made its way to the lake via the York Street sewer. Other animals on site included a Bengal tiger, leopards, parrots, cockatoos and kangaroos. There were also monkeys of various species which sometimes made the news for pilfering personal possessions of visitors who got too close to the cages.

Ad in Toronto Daily Mail (April 26, 1882)

Over the next few years Piper and the zoo’s administrative board continued to add to the collection from a variety of sources; it was not uncommon for people to contact the zoo offering to donate or sell various animals that they had in their possession. In one cryptic announcement, an 1884 issue of the Toronto Daily Mail reported that a “Mr. Loysens has arrived from New York with the largest baboon and man-monkey of Darwin species in the country, as well as a collection of six other Nubian monkeys, Nubian crane, and other additions of much interest.”

The zoological garden was a popular stop for visiting dignitaries. Not only was it regarded as well-kept and sophisticated, but its proximity to the Queen’s Hotel made the zoo geographically convenient for those lodged there (and easy to detect due to its inevitable aromas). Princess Louise, daughter of Queen Victoria, paid a visit, as recalled by Harry Piper some years later, resulting in the Princess commenting on the “dilapidated and careworn” appearance of the zoo’s tiger. Piper suggested that the princess could ask her brother, the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII), to present them with a pair. The veracity of this anecdote would appear to be confirmed by a notice in a July 1886 issue of the Toronto World, in which it was reported that “the tigers promised by the Princess Louise will soon be on their way.”

The grounds of the zoological garden also came to include an outdoor auditorium in the northwest corner, featuring an awning-covered stage, where musical and theatrical productions were staged for seated audiences. This venue opened in June of 1883 when the Holman family presented Edmond Audran’s comic opera, Olivette. Piper recalled years later that there was a certain incongruity to holding such shows on the small zoo grounds, mentioning an incident in which Juliet the lion “joined in” during a performance of Balfe and Bunn’s The Bohemian Girl.

Ad in Toronto Daily Mail (April 26, 1882)

The Zoological Gardens is perhaps best remembered today for the whale which Harry Piper installed on the property. In 1881, a dead whale washed ashore on the Nova Scotia side of the Northumberland Strait. Sensing an intriguing business opportunity, Piper got a three thousand dollar loan from the Bank of Montreal and used it to bring the carcass to downtown Toronto by rail; the zoo’s location at York and Front was in close proximity to the railway tracks, making the move somewhat easier than it could have been. The whale was summarily put on display on the south side of the zoo, alongside the Front Street fence. Large quantities of ice were delivered to slow the dead animal’s decay, evidently to sufficient effect, as the whale proved to be an exceedingly popular attraction. Within two months, Piper had made five thousand dollars, allowing him to pay back the three thousand dollar loan before it was due.

Recollecting the whale years later, Piper recalled that the head faced west, its mouth propped open so that the public could physically enter the animal’s remains; descriptions of the whale’s size differ, varying between fifty-three and sixty-five feet in length. On weekends, Piper waived the admission fee for children, inviting local schools and children’s shelters to visit; he claimed he had upwards of twenty children inside the whale’s jaws at once. In a retrospective piece written by Piper himself in a 1910 issue of the Star Weekly, he recalled that men could have their photograph taken inside the whale’s mouth, while being shaved by Dick Jackson, a local barber. None of these photos are known to still exist today, nor indeed are any photos of the whale or even of the zoo.

Despite being positively received in the press, the zoo did not always sit well with its immediate neighbours. Several petitions were received throughout the 1880s by ratepayers requesting the removal of the zoo, often countered by other petitions arguing in favour of it. In 1883, the Commissioner of Works and Health reported “[in 1882], notwithstanding all the care taken to keep down smells, there was the whole year a bad smell from the whale, and the foxes were very offensive. These latter have been removed, and the whole place is in a very much better sanitary condition…”

In the spring of 1885, the malodorous situation improved somewhat when the zoological association received a ten-year lease for approximately two acres of land on the eastern part of the Exhibition Grounds, a less-densely populated area, at $1 per year. In September of that year the zoo officially relocated from York and Front to its new, more capacious site, with new enclosures and facilities. In 1886, Conyngham Crawford Taylor wrote positively of the zoological gardens, noting that “visitors can have access to the gardens by a choice of conveyance both by land and water, and during the time of the Industrial Exhibition the electric railway will land passengers on the spot. The [Zoological] Society has built a station on the Great Western Division of the Grand Trunk Railway, also landing passengers at the gardens.” Curiously, an 1886 article in the Toronto World notes that the whale, then nearly five years dead, continued to be an attraction.

By 1887, a movement emerged to get the city to buy out what had remained, up to this point, Harry Piper’s private enterprise (albeit with a board of directors). This was only three years after the official formation of the Toronto Public Library, and the zoo was seen by many on council and in the press as being similarly spirited towards public education. The Toronto Daily Mail wrote that “a zoological institution, for its educational and other advantages, should have by this time been made a public institution under the control of the [city] council. Many other cities of the size and importance of Toronto have such institutions, as their benefits are generally recognized.”

In the spring of 1888, Piper asked the city to take control of the zoo, in the understanding that the city would maintain the facility and open it to the entire public, free of charge. This was put to the ratepayers in a referendum in August of that year, but the overwhelming majority voted against it. Soon after, the zoological society was disbanded and the animals all sold off; the land was soon reclaimed by the growing Exhibition. Piper moved to New York City shortly thereafter. The sale of Piper’s animals was a short-sighted loss for Toronto, as the Riverdale Zoo was established only a few years later, and the process of collecting animals needed to begin all over again.

Harry Piper’s Obituary (Telegram, September 17, 1921)

During World War One, Piper returned to Toronto in search of the whale’s jawbone, evidently to use it to help raise money for the Red Cross. He told the Telegram that the skull was found at the home of a Mr. Robert Patterson of Todmorden, and that a burnt part of the lower jaw was located at Riverdale Zoo. When Piper visited his zoo’s York and Front site in 1918, the land had not been redeveloped. It served as a disused junkyard, littered with broken carts and bits of old iron and furniture, all overrun by weeds. The Queen’s Hotel was demolished in 1927, and the site of the zoo was eventually incorporated into the site’s new hotel, the Fairmont Royal York, which opened in 1929.

Harry Piper is not entirely forgotten today. Piper Street, running east from York, was once the northern boundary of his zoo and was named in his honour in 1884. The Fairmont Royal York also includes Piper’s Gastropub to honour the alderman’s legacy. Piper’s zoo is also mentioned on the Royal York Hotel’s heritage plaque.


The Globe. August 27, 1920.
MacMurchy, Angus. Our Royal Town of York: Historic and Romantic Associations of Downtown Toronto and the Site of the Royal York Hotel, 1860-1931. 1929: Toronto.
Marathon Realty, Co. A Street Called Front: Glimpses of an Historic Thoroughfare and Some of its Interesting Neighbours. 1983: Toronto.
Montreal Daily Witness. February 26, 1879.
Star Weekly. September 9, 1910.
Taylor, Conyngham Crawford. Toronto “Called Back,” from 1886 to 1850. William Briggs, 1886: Toronto.
Toronto City Council Minutes for 1880, 1881, 1882, 1883, 1884, 1885, 1887 and 1888.
Toronto Daily Mail. January 23, 1880; June 4, June 22, August 2, 1881; February 18, 1882; June 12, 1883; May 24, 1884; September 10, 1885; August 1, 1887; April 21, May 18, May 24, May 28, 1888; February 20, August 24, 1889.
Toronto Star. September 17, 1921.
Toronto Evening Telegram. July 18, 1918; September 19, 1921.
Toronto World. July 14, 1886; February 16, February 23, 1913
Warsaw Weekly Republican. January 21, 1882.

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