By the middle of the 19th century, Andrew Downs had become a respected naturalist at home and abroad; those seeking familiarity with Nova Scotian forests and wildlife would turn to Downs for guidance and specimens. Royalty and nobility abroad became familiar with his work after his medal-earning taxidermy displays in the world exhibitions of the era.
A pivotal moment in Downs’ career was his 1864 overseas voyage during which he met with prominent British naturalists and engaged in international scientific discourse. He also expanded and promoted his zoological gardens through consultation with members of the Zoological Society of London. England was undergoing a fervor of public interest in the natural world; several years prior, Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution had prompted heated debate at Oxford University’s Cathedral of Science— the newly constructed museum of natural history, opened in 1860. The British Museum was also preparing to construct an immense natural history institution in South Kensington, London. Meanwhile, the London Zoo, the first zoological gardens with a scientific mandate, opened to the public in 1847, the same year Andrew Downs opened his own establishment in Canada.
Andrew Downs traveled to England on the royal vessel The Mersey, with passage gifted by Queen Victoria herself. According to his contemporaries in Halifax, he brought approximately fifty wildlife specimens from Nova Scotia, including a stuffed moose, which he presented to the Zoological Society of London. Supposedly, upon his return, Downs brought living animals home for his own gardens.
I have decided to visit England to retrace Downs’ journey, hoping to learn more about his zoo and the animals he traded during his stay.
I have been focusing my time in London and have recently visited the London Zoo. The ZSL was established in 1826, and the zoo opened in 1828 upon receiving its Royal Charter from King George IV. In the same year, the zoo’s primary architect Decimus Burton, was asked to design a clock tower to adorn the llama hut. The tower still stands today (albeit reconstructed following bombing in WWII), marking first aid services for guests. Andrew Downs would have viewed this structure and other early enclosures during his visit, and I assume they would have impacted his own zoo design in Halifax.
While this building bears no immediate resemblance to Walton Cottage, there are comparable characteristics to the Glass House, in the wooden cladding and rounded features of the clock. While the clock tower is adorned with a weather vane, the Glass House is adorned with a single ornamental bird, at the peak of the structure.
The Giraffe House (designed by Decima Burton) would have also been in use during Downs’ visit, but it is not likely that Downs would have built such grand structures on his premises, as he did not have an equal operating budget.
Three Island Pond is thought to be the last original landscaping of the zoo; the perfectly sculpted waterway is lush and this area may have the most resemblance to Downs’ Zoological Gardens with their interweaving brooks and small ponds. Ridges and bridges were lovingly crafted for the tropical birds that occupy this London site, and I can imagine that Downs’ own ponds would have had similar care.
Nevertheless, I am under the impression that the London Zoological Gardens were slightly more manicured than Downs’ own enterprise, which makes sense… Downs’ zoo was not set in a bustling metropolis, but at the edge of a small city, surrounded by a forest– his enterprise marked the first instance of a zoo in the middle of a great wilderness.