17 July 2017

Friends Send Me ... camel things (6)

My friend Jane sent me this. A very astute researcher herself, she was clearly leaving it up to me to break the story behind this curious item: "Camel Skeleton and Skin to be Saved."[1]

Camel bones. Taxidermist. Rendering Works. How could I not meet the challenge? How did a camel skeleton come to be in Toronto over a hundred years ago? Thanks to The Toronto Star's searchable online historical newspapers, no problem (although the OCR technology often presents a wild variety of words that might resemble camel and the occasional word is indecipherable). Because of that, I am transcribing the notice.

The story unfolded two days earlier. [2]
A Train Killed the Zoo Camel
Animal Ran Along the Track and Engineer Failed to Slacken Up
Lack of Assistance at the Park to Properly Care for the Place
The Siberian camel at the Riverdale Zoo was killed on the C.P.R. tracks between Gerrard Street and the Riverdale bridge about [____] this morning by the north-bound express.As was its habit, the animal was browsing on wild cucumber vines, weeds, and other dainties. It had done the same thing every morning during the summer and fall since it was given to the city by Mr. Frederic Nicholls five years ago. Previously, however, it had always hurried from the tracks at the first hoot of the whistle. It made an attempt this morning to escape, but, becoming confused, ran up instead of across. Eye-witnesses say that it ran fully sixty or seventy paces, but that, instead of slowing up, the engineer opened the throttle, and struck the fugitive at full speed.The shock must have been great, as the huge body was thrown from the C.P.R. track on to the old Belt Line and its back was broken.At the first sign of verdure in the spring the camel always went on strike against a hay diet. Nor would the fastidious beast accept grass. Its palate required something more titillating, thistles or cucumber or [____] leaf.Superintendent Carter has never had more than two men on his staff, though Park Commissioner Chambers has asked time and again that an extra man be hired to take care of the elephant and the camel. The elephant is chained to the tree, and the camel is dead. When the two men are paid the year around [$20?] is left for carpentry and other repairs.Ex-Ald Lamb, who has taken more interest in the Zoo than most men, aldermen or others, [____] the city for today's fatality. Had the council been less close-fisted, he argues, the camel would have had some one to look after it. As it was, the camel had to have the diet it craved, and its safety depended on its own sagacity."The city should buy another camel at once," he says, with emphasis.

There we have it. A star of the zoo makes a dramatic exit. References to a patron and labour issues and politics seem to indicate a lot of public interest. Enough interest that the day following the accident, the editor of the Star waxed on rather unforgivably about the camelamity, from which I extract the salient barbs:

"A Stern Lesson"[3]
the camel's name was Moses;
Moses trespassed onto the railway track, evoking some kind of moral lesson;
described as "proud-stomached" ... an animal with two stomachs needs fresh grass;
▪ the scribe almost implies suicide with the phrase: [Moses]"rushed on death";
▪ and "Perhaps he deserved what he got. He did not Keep Off The Grass."

I did not appreciate the editor's disparaging humour. To be fair, ex-Alderman Lamb was again mentioned as a champion of Moses and the zoo, but he too suffered a sophomoric editorial jibe as one "who has consorted with lions of one kind and another all his life." Lamb declared the camel's care should not have been shared with the zoo elephant; both had been treated badly in contrast to their native environments. Comparing the camel to a ship, he was quoted, "A city that is honoured with a $1,200 camel should be able to support a $100 man to caddy for him."

The day after that came the piece Jane found, with a tiny second item in the same edition: "Camel was Insured."[4] The camel was insured for $500 but "only for fire." So the zoo was out of luck for compensation. The story lost its legs sorry, the dreadful humour is contagious — until about a month later and "specialists are busy on the carcass of the camel killed by a railway engine at the Riverdale Zoo, and the skeleton will probably be mounted and placed in the Normal School Museum within a few days."[5] 

Why a museum at the Normal School (the institute for training school teachers)?! Well, five years after the opening of the school building (1852), a project called the Museum of Natural History and Fine Arts was founded. Dr. Egerton Ryerson, prominent educator and early provincial superintendent of schools, began the collection with scientific and artistic items he acquired himself from travels in Europe. Forty years later, large archaeological collections were added to it from the Canadian Institute of Toronto. In 1912 the museum's collections became the foundation for our Royal Ontario Museum (ROM). The Normal School, located at Church and Gould Streets, was demolished in 1963.[6]

Archives of Ontario: F1125-1-0-0-178
I can tell you that the turn-of-the-20th-century camel benefactor, Mr. Frederic Nicholls (1855-1921), was an influential Toronto businessman in the fields of engineering and hydroelectricity.[7] Among varied career ventures, he organized the syndicates that led to formation of Canadian General Electric and became its first manager. Nicholls' home was on St. George Street and he had a farm north of the city, but I can find no hint of an interest in exotic animals.

Nevertheless, further searching in The Star produced the news of the original donation:[8]
Camels for the Riverdale Zoo
Two Animals to be Added to the Collection in the East End Park
One is an Arabian and the Other of Bactrian VarietyOn the Way Here

The public was assured the four and a half year old "Arabian," already in his new home, was "splendid and healthy"; children will be thrilled to relate the camel with various biblical stories. The last word was "Bactrian now en route from Central Asia." The next day The Globe buried the story in a mishmash of local Toronto news no headline, no excitement, and almost word for word from The Star.[9]

The transport of the Bactrian must have run into numerous difficulties and delays, because the animal only arrived two years later, after several months' intermediate stay in New York. Without being inclined to continue squinting at newspaper print, I cannot feel the same emotional attachment to the as-yet unnamed animal.
Wikimedia Commons
Did Moses the camel ever go on display as a stuffed carcass and/or as a skeleton? Apparently yes. Mr. Burton Lim, Assistant Curator of Mammalogy in the ROM's Natural History Department, tells me that Moses' skeleton was finally "dismantled" in 1953.[10] 

I wonder if the ROM ever knew his name.

[1] "Camel Skeleton and Skin to be Saved," The Toronto Daily Star, 13 July 1906, p 1 col 8.
[2] "A Train killed the Zoo Camel," The Star, 11 July 1906 p 3 col 5.
[3] "A Stern Lesson," The Star, 12 July 1906, p 6 col 2.
[4] "Camel Was Insured," The Star, 13 July p 5 col 7.
[5] The Star, August 10 1906, p 8 col 1.
[6] "Toronto Normal School," Wikipedia (wikipedia.org/ : accessed 9 April 2013).
[7] "Frederic Thomas Nicholls," Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online (http://www.biographi.ca/ : accessed 9 April 2013).
[8] "Camels for the Riverdale Zoo," The Star, 24 July 1902, p 1 cols 5-6.
[9] The Globe (Toronto), 25 July 1902, p 7 col 5.
[10] Burton Lim to Brenda D. Merriman, email, 9 April 2013.

© 2014 Brenda Dougall Merriman

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