Halifax was home to North America’s first professional zoo

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Halifax was home to North America’s first professional zoo

As a resident of Halifax, how far would you imagine you’d need to go to see tigers, leopards, or a polar bear? Once upon a time, a Halifax zoo called Downs’ Zoological Gardens hosted these animals and many more.

Downs’ Zoological Gardens was in operation between 1847 and 1867 and then again between 1869 and 1872. The zoo was owned and operated by a man named Andrew Downs. Originally, the zoo covered two hectares of hilly land near where Joseph Howe Drive is today (near Morningside Drive). By the early 1860s, the zoo covered 40 hectares (almost half a square kilometre). There were walking paths throughout the zoo that led to picnic areas, statues, an artificial lake, and most notably, the Glass House.


The zoo’s owner/operator, Andrew Downs, sits on the railing in front of the Glass House (photo credit: Coaster Enthusiasts of Canada)

The Glass House contained a greenhouse and aquarium as well as a museum of stuffed animals. It was a very popular site amongst all of the attractions at the zoo.

The¬†Downs’ Zoological Gardens was so popular that that there were two ferries operating on the Northwest Arm that would ship guests to see the zoo. The ferries were called the Neptune and the Micmac.

The zoo had become so popular by the 1860s that representatives from the American Smithsonian Museum had recommended Andrew Downs set up a condensed version of his zoo at New York’s Central Park.

The zoo temporarily shut down while Downs moved to New York, and although it was reopened in 1869, it closed in 1872 due to financial hardship.

Thanks to Mike Macdonald, fan of Halifacts, for suggesting that we look into this piece of Halifax history. Feel free to send along your suggestions too!


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Halifacts Admin

Tidbits of Halifax history for your learning pleasure!


Steve Coolen

January 4, 2015at 10:31 pm

I beleive the zoo was actually located on Joseph Howe Drive across from Morningside Drive, and not as the location of the current SuperStore. There is a monument with a plaque marking the former location of the zoo. It is easy to spot if you know where it is, but I suspect most people driving past would never notice it. You can also see it on Google Street View.

Also, I believe when the zoo closed that it was sold or moved to NYC which is how their zoo began, though I can’t recall the details.

    Halifacts Admin

    January 5, 2015at 1:30 pm

    Thanks, Steve!

Mark Freeman

January 5, 2015at 4:42 am

I think your location “near where the Superstore is now” is off. There is a historical marker on Joseph Howe Dr (@ Morningside Dr) on the side of the road that is a monument to Downs and his gardens in Halifax.

    Halifacts Admin

    January 5, 2015at 1:30 pm

    Thanks, Mark!

Ken Duncan

January 5, 2015at 3:07 pm

As a kid, I remember going to the Public Gardens and seeing the monkeys in cages in the ‘play area’. Was that connected in any way to this zoo? Were the monkeys decendants of ones in the zoo? Curiosity awakened!!!


January 5, 2015at 11:05 pm

“Andrew Downs sold his property and left for the superintendants position at New York’s Cental Park Zoo in 1867, but things did not work out and he returned to Halifax. Unable to re-purchase his former Zoological Gardens he purchased the lands adjacent to it and set about re-constructing an aviary and other collections. It was not a success and he again sold in 1872.”

Info found here http://gdevanney.ca/liquor-and-grocery-retailing-in-halifax.html


January 5, 2015at 11:09 pm

More info on Andrew Downs http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/downs_andrew_12E.html

Beth Dame

January 6, 2015at 8:10 pm

These days, except for the polar bear, you just need to go to the Annapolis Valley. There’s a family run zoo in Aylesford which is about an hour and 15 minutes from the city. http://www.oaklawnfarmzoo.ca/

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