A Whale of a Tale at Toronto’s First Zoo


Front St. W. and York St.

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The aroma of decomposing whale flesh is rare on downtown Toronto streets. It wasn’t in 1881, when local businessman and politician Harry Piper brought a dead whale to Toronto.

A cartoon depicting Harry Piper advertising his dead whale with the caption "The Manager - dressy, debonair, distingue [sic], and other choice adjectives" (from Toronto World, February 1913).

Piper owned Toronto’s first zoo, then located at the northeast corner of York and Front streets. The whale was intended to be an additional attraction for the small zoo, which also featured many living animals, including bears, elephants and lions.

Piper used large quantities of ice to slow the whale’s decay, though it was displayed for far too long. It proved a popular attraction, with many paying for the privilege to stand inside its jaws. In one stunt, Toronto men could have their picture taken inside the whale’s mouth while being shaved by a local barber.

In 1885 the zoo moved, whale remains and all, to a site on the Exhibition Grounds. One can imagine the relief at the Queen’s Hotel, which throughout the zoo’s existence had been its next-door neighbour. The site is now occupied by the Royal York Hotel, which features a pub named after Harry Piper.

By David Wencer

Visit The Canadian Encyclopedia for more on Toronto.

A cartoon depicting the bear exhibit containing Peter the Great, with the caption, "The cage where Peter the Great reposes or is going to and fro as if he had lost something" (from Toronto World, February 1913). View the image gallery