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Kumar, a three-month-old Bactrian camel, with Dr. Bill Rapley at the Toronto Zoo (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)
Kumar, a three-month-old Bactrian camel, with Dr. Bill Rapley at the Toronto Zoo (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)


Inside Toronto's hidden zoo Add to ...

The white brick building feels medieval, the doorways too small for 21st-century girths and the hallway too narrow for two people to pass without an awkward side shuffle. Open rooms offer brief glimpses of bizarre scenes: a technician examining blood smears of Red River hogs, a PhD stirring a rattlesnake with a stick, a baby moose on a hospital gurney.

A few hundred feet away on the public side, bored kids are staring at an empty polar-bear exhibit and a dad is muttering about the $10 price of parking. A few people strain their necks for a look at Buddy and Pedro, the purportedly gay penguins. But back here beyond a fence next to the snow leopard exhibit, this is where a true magical menagerie tour awaits.

“We call it the hidden zoo,” says Bill Rapley, the executive director for conservation, education and wildlife, as he clops down the narrow hallway of the Toronto Zoo’s Animal Health Centre. “It’s where the real work of this zoo takes place and no one really gets to see it.”

The zoo has hidden it so well, in fact, that when city councillors were debating the fate of the municipally owned Toronto Zoo last month, there was barely a mention of the ongoing activities on this side of the fence. They referred to it in terms more suited to Canada’s Wonderland or Disneyworld – a tourist trap, plain and simple. Mayor Ford led the charge, asking rhetorically what taxpayers were doing in the zoo business. And so the decision was made: Sell or lease the zoo.

How exactly that transaction takes place now rests with the city manager, but the decision immediately caught the interest of several international theme park operators, including Parque Reunidos, a Spanish behemoth that runs the likes of BonBon-Land and Dutch Wonderland.

Dr. Rapley insists the spectre of a private operator doesn’t bother him. But it has to. His life’s work is at stake.

“In many respects, the history of zoos is the history of some noble zoo director aspiring to some higher goal of conservation research,” says Jeffrey Hyson, a zoo historian at Saint Joseph’s University and author of a forthcoming cultural history of American zoos, “and then running up against the reality that these institutions still exist more for recreation, more for families to see exotic animals up close.”

Quirks and consequences

Dr. Rapley dodges a few wooden crates in the hallway marked “Caution Live Animals.” There’s no telling what’s inside them. The animal centre we’re touring ships or receives enough animals every day to keep a few couriers busy. Today there’s a porcupine coming in and some endangered black-footed ferrets heading out to a Midwest American “boot camp” where they’ll be trained for reintroduction to the wild.

We head into a low-ceilinged room reeking of antiseptic. Heavy steel tables inside can accommodate anything up to the size of a polar bear. Shelves are lined with medicine bottles, rubber hose and, curiously, a jar of K-Y Jelly. But it’s surprisingly small, no bigger than any human hospital facility.

“You can imagine how difficult it would be to X-ray an elephant’s leg in here,” says Dr. Rapley. “This is all original, all 1974 construction. Even then it was not to the level we really needed.”

Dr. Rapley was hired as the zoo’s first vet in 1973. He was fresh off a 15-month internship at the San Diego Zoo and the new Toronto facility offered a good chance to practice his new skills close to his hometown. As a kid, he was obsessed with nesting birds around his home in Stoney Creek, Ont. He even brought a few home. He was hooked. Aside from a seven-year break in the eighties, he’s worked at the zoo since he was hired, making pioneering breakthroughs in the emerging field of animal science and defining the “higher purpose” referred to in the zoo’s purpose statement: to protect wildlife and habitats, advocate on wildlife issues and pursue green initiatives.

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