A gift of deer to a Lamb marked the beginning of the Toronto Zoo. Alderman Daniel Lamb is responsible for starting the Riverdale Zoo in Cabbagetown which is a part of Toronto with just a few deer. Riverdale Zoo (now Riverdale Farm), which opened in 1894, was Toronto’s first zoo, which aspired to become a bigger and better one.
As was characteristic of its Victorian era, it was one of the main attractions at the Riverdale Zoo to display animals as curiosities and to entertain the public (visitors could ride the elephant around). Animals’ natural habitats were not given much consideration – some wolves were provided with dog houses.
Over the years, concerned citizens have been meeting to discuss a zoo for Toronto, but it wasn’t really until 1966 that the Metropolitan Toronto Zoological Society was formed, formed at Toronto City Hall. A decision was made in 1967 to build the new zoo at Glen Rouge, and in 1970, work began to grade and clear the site.
A couple of surprises greeted the opening of the 287-acre Metro Toronto Zoo on Aug. 15, 1974.
The Star reported that two aardvarks were still at large (the animals were found in their tunnels a few days after they emerged from the African pavilion). Secondly, zoo officials had expected about 50,000 visitors, but only 8,000 showed up. The Star article blamed the lower numbers on an upcoming transit strike and the fear of first-day crushes. Even those who did come to the zoo to see the 3,000 animals, including 230 from the Riverdale Zoo, which closed shortly before the opening, were impressed, although one man winced at paying the $2.50 admission fee, which today is $28, including tax.
On opening day, one man told the Star it was a night and day difference from the “disgraceful” Riverdale Zoo. A unique development at the Metro Toronto Zoo was its display of animals and vegetation in geographical areas, the first of its kind in the world. Exhibits were set up in six regions (there are now seven) with plants and animals interacting in what is as close to a natural environment as possible.
As a result, it has grown to become one of the biggest zoos in the world. The zoo was the first in Canada (and still is) to employ a full-time nutritionist and a full-time reproductive physiologist. The facility has successfully bred rare and endangered species such as snow leopards, Sumatran tigers (the 2003 birth of three the first in Canada), Komodo dragons (in 2003, the first hatchings in Canada), orange-kneed tarantulas (in 1994, the first breeding in North America), critically endangered Siberian tiger cubs, born in 2003, and the endangered Burmese star tortoise (in 2014, the first in Canada).
Several of the zoo’s captive-bred species such as the Puerto Rican crested toad, wood bison, and the Vancouver Island marmot have been released into the wild for the benefit of threatened and endangered species. A similar release was made with black-footed ferrets (which had become extinct on the prairies of Canada) in Saskatchewan’s Grasslands National Park.
Featuring more than 5,000 animals representing more than 460 species, the zoo is also a popular destination for animal visitors from around the world, such as Er Shun and Da Mao, the giant pandas that came in 2013 on a five-year loan from China. Thousands of people flocked to the zoo in 1985 to see Qing Qing and Quan Quan, the first two pandas to visit the zoo from China.
Animals at the Toronto Zoo cost a lot to feed. Food consumption has increased exponentially over the past few decades – from a monthly expenditure of $20,000 in 1974 to around $16,000 per week today.
Furthermore, Toronto Zoo has endured challenges in recent years with the loss of three elephants (they were donated in 2013 to an animal sanctuary in California) and competition from Ripley’s Aquarium, built in 2013. Each year, the number of attendees averages more than a million. Zoos remain popular destinations for families and are open every day of the year except for Christmas.
Read Another: Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada