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Andrew Downs and the First Zoo in North America

For the week of Monday August 25, 2008

August 26, 1892, marks the death of Andrew Downs, a man who established the Halifax Zoological Garden, the first zoo in North America.

Andrew Downs
© Nova Scotia Archives and Record Management / #200715518
Downs became interested in nature in 1833 when he met the American ornithologist, J.J. Audubon, who was visiting Nova Scotia. By 1838, Downs was established as a naturalist and was selected by the Nova Scotia House of Assembly to collect animals and birds from Nova Scotia to be presented to British museums and scientific institutions. At the same time, he conceived a plan for his own zoological gardens, which would create a park for the enjoyment and the study of zoology and ornithology.

After nine years of collecting animals and planning, Downs opened his zoological park to the public in 1847. The gardens grew in popularity and the collection of animals and birds received donations from the British army stationed at Halifax, and importations from the Zoological Society of London.

By the 1860s, the park had grown to 40 hectares. It was a place for recreation, containing picnic areas and walking paths.  It was also a place for the study of nature with numerous animals from all over the world, an aviary full of birds, a greenhouse, an aquarium, and a museum of stuffed animals and birds. The park’s popularity as well as Downs’ increasing knowledge and reputation as a naturalist brought him distinction in 1862 when he was elected a corresponding member of the Zoological Society of London. His beautiful showpieces of stuffed animals and birds were so life-like that they won him medals at many international taxidermy exhibitions. Downs wrote papers on various nature subjects and became a recognized authority on topics in naturalism. 

Andrew Downs in front of the 'Glass House'
© Nova Scotia Archives and Record Management / #200603579

In 1867, S.F. Baird, an eminent zoologist from the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., recommended Andrew Downs for the post of superintendent of the zoological collections in New York’s Central Park. Downs sold his zoological gardens and moved to New York in 1868. He only remained three months before he returned to Halifax where he tried to reopen his zoological garden on another property in 1869. The new park was not as successful, and closed in 1872 due to financial hardship. After this Downs retired, but continued to publish papers, maintaining connections with various naturalist societies.

The Establishment of the Halifax Zoological Garden was designated a National Historic Event in 1948.

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