Andrew Downs in front of “The Glass House” (an aviary and museum) at the Downs Zoological Gardens, Halifax, NS, Canada ca. 1860s.
In 1847, Downs opened a zoological gardens on a small 2-hectare site at his estate. The area was quite hilly but did offer a small valley area near Dutch Village Road. It was the first professional zoo in North America and was located a few hundred meters northwest from the head of Halifax’s Northwest Arm.
By the early 1860s, the zoo grounds covered 40 hectares with many fine flowers & ornamental trees, picnic areas, statues, walking paths, The Glass House (which contained a greenhouse with an aviary, aquarium, & museum of stuffed animals & birds), a pond, a bridge over a waterfall, an artificial lake with a fountain, a wood-ornamented greenhouse, a forest area, and enclosures & buildings.
The zoo came to house bears, beavers, caribou, cranes, Spanish, Mexican & American deer, foxes, Egyptian geese, heron, leopards, lizards, mink, monkeys, ostriches, otter, peacocks, parrots, pigeons, pheasants, a polar bear, seals, snakes, Chinese swans, tigers, turtles, walrus, wolves, and a further assortment birds, fish and reptiles from world-wide locations.
The Halifax zoo attracted people from all over the world. Royalty and many famous persons mingled with the local population at company, club, church, and municipal picnics & events. Transportation to the park was by coach or ferry up the Northwest Arm. Two ferries that serviced the park were Micmac and Neptune. They typically ran from Halifax Harbour, around the city’s peninsula, and up The Arm to a dock close to the park. Downs became such an expert, he was invited to display birds and specimens at several world’s fairs and exhibitions, including The Great Exhibition of 1851 (commonly known as The Crystal Palace Exhibition) and the 1862 International Exhibition, both which were held in London. Awards were also presented to him at the 1865 International Exhibition and Paris’ 1867 International Exhibition. Other fairs at which he won medals were the 1862, 65, and 67 fairs, plus ones at Birmingham and Dublin. He became a member of the London Zoological Society and wrote papers on various nature subjects.
All this lead to Spencer Baird of The American Smithsonian Museum recommending to New York’s Central Park to offer him a post at their zoo. After a delay, Downs accepted and at a final farewell party, auctioned his property & collection on May 28, 1868. Most of the estate’s items went to a Mr. Doull for somewhere between $8,000 and $10,000. After three months in New York, Andrew Downs resigned from his post due to a disagreement with the park commissioner, whereupon he returned to Halifax. He bought a new property near his old and in 1869 opened a new zoological gardens. This was not as successful and closed in July of 1872 due to financial hardship.
After this, Downs lived in retirement while maintaining connections with the various naturalist societies until his death in 1892 at age 80 or 81.
Andrew Downs encapsulated mid-19th-century interests in science, public parks, and healthful recreation. A recognized authority on Nova Scotian birds, in 1864 he was described as one “whose heart is in his work, if ever man’s was, and who has the liberality of spirit which all true lovers of nature have.”