Halifax's first zoo is well-kept secret of Fairmount history

A Halifax artist is enchanted by the Downs' Zoological Gardens, which opened in 1847 off Joseph Howe Drive, and is researching everything she can about it.

Halifax artist digs up all she can find about the city's first zoo

Driveway to Walton Cottage, Halifax; Home of zoo keeper Andrew Downs (D'Arcy Wilson)

The year 1847 was a long, long time ago — so long, in fact, that the area around what is now Joseph Howe Drive and the Armdale Rotary was a little on the wild side.

One of the area's well-kept secrets is that there was a zoo located in what's now known as Fairmount.

D'Arcy Wilson is an established media artist in Halifax and is the artist-in-residence at Halifax's Centre for Art Tapes. For months, she has been working on an art project about Halifax's Zoological Gardens. Wilson's project is called The Memorialist.

Halifax artist D'Arcy Wilson at Natural History Museum, London (Chris Friel )

Wilson first stumbled across the story of the zoo by accident. She was visiting the Nova Scotia Public Archives while researching an unrelated project on early settlers to the province and the wildlife they would have encountered.

In the card catalogue — while looking up "wildlife" — she found information on the zoo. She was immediately captivated and dropped her original topic to begin this new research. Ever since, she has been trying to find out everything she can about Halifax's first zoo and its zookeeper.

First zoo north of Mexico

Wilson has made a lot of progress. She discovered the zoo in Halifax was the first in the Americas, north of Mexico.

She has also found out about the animals, which included birds, a monkey, a polar bear brought as a cub from Labrador, coyote, elk, deer and caribou, which had large fields in which they could roam.

She's also dug up information about the zookeeper, Andrew Downs. He was born in the U.S. and trained as a plumber. Downs had a keen interest in nature and became a self-taught naturalist. 

He opened the zoo at the same time as the London Zoo.

Wilson is aware of only one photo in existence of Andrew Downs. It was taken in front of the aviary building at the zoological gardens. Wilson says the building, called the Glass House, contained captive eagles, falcons, owls, and other "stilled birds mounted on severed branches."

Only known photo of zoo keeper Andrew Downs, taken in front of the aviary at Halifax Zoological Gardens, circa 1847. (Nova Scotia Archives)

Not much is left of the zoo today

Wilson grew up in the Fairmount area and says she drove by the site of the former zoo "all the time" as a child.

Today, there's a plaque at the site of the old zoo, but not much else remains.

By the late 1860s, the zoo's grounds grew to 40 hectares.

Wilson visited a two-hectare site that was once within the zoo's boundaries. The property has changed hands only three times since it was owned by Downs.

Wilson toured the property with the current owner and discovered what appears to be remnants of a bear den. 

The zoo closed in 1868, when according to Wilson, Downs was offered a job to set up a zoo at Central Park in New York City. She says he closed the zoo and sold the land, then moved with his family to New York.

But Wilson says for some reason the New York zoo job never materialized. Wilson doesn't know why and she wants to find out. She says he returned to Halifax and tried to buy back the former zoo property without success. 

To find out more about the Downs, Wilson plans to visit the New York Museum and the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C.

Wilson says she expects to find specimens Downs donated to those facilities.

Plaque commemorating Halifax Zoological Gardens (D'Arcy Wilson)

Her determination has taken her to Paris and London to study the zoos that opened in those cities around the same time as the Halifax Zoological Gardens. 

Wilson also visited the Natural History Museum in London, the Cambridge University Museum of Zoology and the Oxford University Museum of Natural History in search of specimens sent by Downs to those institutions. 

"Zoos are a symbol of our disconnect from the natural world, and so this project considers the significance of the first zoo in North America opening in Halifax, at a time when there was still a vast wilderness around the city," Wilson said. 

"While the project is initially light hearted and based in fact, it becomes more somber and contemplative as it progresses."

At 6:30 p.m. on Sept. 9, Wilson will present an artist talk and screen her video about Downs and the Halifax Zoological Gardens at Halifax Central Library.

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