In these troubled times of the COVID-19 pandemic, I’m sure you’ve noticed the increased number of requests by an increasing number of charities for financial assistance.

There’s no doubt that each and every one of them deserves our attention. But one that stood out for my wife and me (and our rescued Parson Terrier Sidney) was a request by people at the Toronto Zoo.

To paraphrase that request, the zoo’s conservancy arm is trying to raise $100,000 to help feed the 5,000 animals at the Scarborough-area zoo. The total food budget costs $1 million annually, but with the zoo’s main source of funds from admissions cut off, other sources of funds are badly needed.

And that led me to do a story on our city’s very first zoo — one run by showman extraordinaire Harry Piper.

The same year that Piper’s zoo opened, 1881, the Canadian Illustrated News featured this sketch of the property in its Oct. 22 edition. This unique paper was published from 1869 to 1883 in Montreal with each edition now available online.

Certainly the most interesting creature presented to the paying public was actually a part of a creature, the carcass of a 53-foot-long, 12-ton whale that had washed up on shore near the Gaspé. In February, 1882, showman Piper arranged to have it hauled by rail flatcar to the zoo site where it was put on display. Newspaper ads like this one enticed visitors to see it for themselves, after paying a quarter that is. In the cold winter months it was a sustainable attraction. But as the weather warmed, not so much. The rotted remains were eventually disposed of across Front St. where they buried it in the landfill that was slowly extending the city’s shoreline further into Toronto Bay. It was while work was underway on the Bay St. tunnel — in which the TTC’s new Harbourfront streetcar line would operate — that one of the whale’s vertebrae was discovered. It took a while to calm the whale experts who had never heard of a salt water mammal swimming about in this part of the world. Eventually, the Piper whale story was revealed. Wonder where that bone is today?

The fate of the creatures from Toronto’s first zoo is somewhat clouded. It is recorded that some went to a zoo that was featured at the Exhibition (CNE) in 1886 and 1887. Admission fees were insufficient to sustain the zoo and in 1888 Piper attempted to have the city fathers take it over as a municipal responsibility. The question was put to the electorate but the idea was defeated by a vote of 979 to 248. There’s some suggestion that a few of the homeless creatures may have been taken to High Park where another small zoo was taking shape; the one that’s there today. For older Torontonians the zoo in Riverdale Park (a section of which is seen in this old penny postcard) was a favourite destination in the warmer months. It welcomed the public from 1899 until the new Metro Toronto Zoo (now the Toronto Zoo) opened on Aug. 15, 1974.

By the way, with lots of time to sit, relax and read, may I suggest you purchase (yes, purchase) a copy of Toronto, Spirit of Place — an entertaining collection of stories and photos (new and old) about our city and created by professional photographer John McQuarrie and myself.

Details can be had by emailing John at

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