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HalifaxYesterday : The Zoological Garden of Andrew Downs

In 1847 Halifax, one man’s vision of opening a zoological garden became a reality

In 1847 Halifax, one man’s vision of opening a zoological garden, wherein visitors could spend the day enjoying a collection of some of the world’s most diverse and rare flora, fauna and marine life, became a reality. Located in the west end of the city on the old Dutch Village Road (now Joseph Howe Drive just up from the Armdale Rotary), Andrew Downs’ Zoological Garden was the first of its kind in modern North America since the ancient gardens of the Aztec civilization in Mexico. Downs was a naturalist, ornithologist and specialist in the art of taxidermy, his chosen profession. The grounds initially covered only five acres but were later expanded to include one hundred acres. This venture predated the Central Park Zoo in New York City by sixteen years. (See Images 1 above)

Andrew Downs was born of Scottish heritage on 27 September 1811 to Robert and Elizabeth (Plum) Downs at New Brunswick, New Jersey. His father had visited Halifax some years earlier and liked the area, so he decided to move his family there in 1827. As a young boy, Andrew would play hooky from school and journey off into the woods to explore and birdwatch. The elder Downs worked as a tinsmith (plumber) and Andrew would occasionally accompany his father on the job. Later, the young man took on the trade himself as a means to make a living. However, his love of natural history eventually took over and he turned his attention to breeding birds and other animals. In August 1833, he met John James Audubon who was on an eight-day tour of Nova Scotia. The famous American ornithologist had just returned from Labrador where he had been conducting research along the coast for his multivolume work, The Birds of America. The two men subsequently corresponded on a regular basis. (See Image 2 above)

Following the expansion of the British Museum in 1837, the secretary of state for the Colonies, Lord Glenelg, touted to Nova Scotians the notion of the importance of natural history and the securing of “such rare and curious objects” which may deserve a place in the museum. In the year following, the matter came before the House of Assembly. On 14 April, the “contributions of the specimens of the natural curiosities” was officially recommended by a Select Committee of the House. In September, Downs was given the power “to purchase living specimens of the indigenous birds and quadrupeds of this province for a gentleman desirous of presenting them to scientific institutions in England.”

By November, Andrew Downs was pushing for the establishment of a natural history museum. He also circulated a plan with a definitive proposal for a small neat gallery for the display of choice zoology and ornithology specimens, and a garden that would feature many local and international varieties of plants and shrubs as well as fine specimens of birds and animals. The latter would consist of “living specimens, carefully selected and attended to.” However, the plan did not achieve immediate success.

In 1841, Dr. Thomas McCulloch, the first president of Dalhousie University, petitioned the patronage of the Provincial Legislature for a natural history collection in the city being organized by he and his family. Following a visit by a Select Committee who viewed the extensive collection, its members indeed recommended support for the establishment of a Museum of Natural History to the House of Assembly. However, the £250 voted upon left much to be desired and was held up by the Lieutenant-Governor Falkland until the matter could be brought up again so to obtain a much larger sum. (See Image 3)

Andrew Downs had been allotted a small amount of money for his own project from the House of Assembly. Because the lieutenant-governor was tying up his funding as well, he decided to voice his opinion on the matter. Downs realized the grant would not be sufficient to establish a Provincial Museum and suggested the funds instead be used to obtain “nearly all the Ornithological Specimens of the country.” This procurement would then be added to the collection of the Museum of the Halifax Mechanics’ Institute of which Downs was a committee member. The Institute, founded in 1831, had a collection of specimens that included all manner of birds, insects and minerals with an approximate value of £400. The combined collection would be a worthwhile and respectable scientific enterprise that would surely command the attention of the general public. He also requested that his services be commanded for the project but the House turned down the entire proposition.

By 1846, Andrew Downs held the position of curator at the Institute. In July, it was announced in the Halifax Times that a large picnic, open to the general public, would take place on McNab’s Island in the month of August with the goal of raising funds to build an Institute Hall. Many stuffed birds and other zoological specimens such as stuffed elk, bears, a black fox and a pair of ichneumons (Egyptian Mongoose), as well as several live birds and a monkey, were on display to encourage interest and financial support. The event was a great success with 6,000 people having attended and £200 net raised. Downs, no doubt, hoped the occasion would also spark interest in his own plan to establish a zoological garden. He did not wait very long before beginning his project the next year.

An 1893, Forest and Stream publisher Charles Hallock wrote an article that offered a graphic description of the expansive property’s appearance in 1865. Downs’ house, Walton Cottage, was set in a beautiful out of the way area that could be accessed via a circular gravel road shaded by interlacing firs. Deer and moose antlers could be seen on all sides of the small gothic residence. Just off of the porch were several birdhouses at the tops of long poles, and on the lawn lay some whale ribs and vertebrae. The walls of the interior of the house were covered with many watercolours of birds and flowers. A table in the centre of the main room sported many books and a basket filled with cards bearing the names of previous distinguished visitors. A glass case containing a glove dropped by the Prince of Wales on his visit there five years earlier was prominently featured. Through the large bow window one could view the entire North West Arm to the Atlantic ocean.

Mr. Downs would often be found outdoors in shirtsleeves, feeding all manner of birds from around the globe including poultry, geese, ducks and swans. He would eagerly lead pleasure seekers on tours through the various woods and open spaces. The grounds were teeming with cages, coops and shelters of all kinds. Monkeys, doves, cranes, herons, woodpeckers, robins and all manner of migratory birds abounded. One would cross a bridge over a waterfall and come upon a lake with a polar bear on its banks. Further down there were mink, otters and beavers and a lovely pond wherein a seal playfully swam. (See Images 4 and 5 above)

Over another rustic bridge, one would find an artistically laid out flower garden and nearby trees filled with nesting birds. Beyond that were the enclosures for black bears, elk, caribou and deer. The large acreage also contained California quails, Himalayan pheasants, peacocks, cockatoos, prairie wolves, lynxes, eagles, hawks, owls, foxes, doves, rabbits, guinea pigs, Chinese sheep and Angora goats. The ornamental Glass House that stood on one side of a small valley, contained a greenhouse, aviary, aquarium and museum. This building was filled with untold variety of stuffed birds as well as an array of live snakes and other reptiles, amphibians and fish. (See Image 6 above)

During its heyday between 1864 and 1868, thousands of people from Nova Scotia and elsewhere, including clubs and societies, took part in excursions to the Halifax Zoological Garden either by steamer up the Arm or by coach for a day’s outing or a picnic. Andrew Downs’ reputation as a taxidermist had grown locally and internationally through his award-winning presentations at prestigious exhibitions in London, Dublin and Paris. Since the inception of his Zoological Gardens, Downs had spent much of his own money to fund his endeavours. Though, he did on occasion receive numerous small government grants towards the upkeep of his gardens and aquarium. One bit of funding was a small grant from the legislature of Nova Scotia to aid in his procurements of new stock for his zoological collection. He received the last of these grants in 1866, although he was given £200 the following year towards his aquarium.

In 1864, Andrew Downs was offered a position as superintendent of the Central Park Zoo. He turned down this initial offer stating that he did not wish to “abandon his own pet enterprise.” However, two years later, he changed his mind and made the decision, with expressed regrets, to sell his grounds and natural history collection and move to New York. He received eight or ten thousand dollars for the property and his collection was sold at auction. For unclear reasons, the new appointment was not effectuated and Downs returned to Halifax in 1869. He bought a new property on the North West Arm with the intention of restarting his Zoological Gardens. He did so, and for three years the venture appeared to have measured success. During this period, he approached City Council to secure additional funding but was turned down. As a result, and due to the changing tide of public interest towards this manner of recreation, Downs decided to sell his lands in July of 1872. Smart stock investments and prudent real estate purchases would ultimately give him financial security.

Despite possessing an encyclopedic knowledge in several areas of endeavour, Downs published little during his lifetime - one published paper in 1865, and a similar one in 1888. During the latter decade, he also published an authoritative listing of birds in Nova Scotia. He married twice and fathered five daughters. Downs spent his final twenty years doing taxidermy, studying nature and being involved with efforts aimed at civic improvement. He still participated in exhibitions and in 1890, built a small museum next to his house to hold his collection of native birds. Andrew Downs died at 81 years of age on 26 August 1892. (See Image 7 above)

A monument and descriptive plaque presently mark the entrance to his former Zoological Garden, having been designated a national historic site. However, what little remains - a patch of trees, the pond, ruins of an old foundation and a small stream - will most likely be bulldozed someday to make way for some type of municipal or private development. (See Images 8, 9 and 10 above)

Sources: “Montezuma’s Successor: Andrew Downs of Halifax,” C. B. Fergusson (1947, The Dalhousie Review, Vol. 27, No. 3); Dictionary of Canadian Biography.

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