“Help! Help me! Help!”
Two Victoria men strolling in Beacon Hill Park on November 12, 1949, ran toward the screams. Inside the zoo’s deer enclosure, Bob Chambers and Victor Bochko saw a young boy clinging desperately to the horns of a lunging, kicking 200 pound buck. They quickly scaled the fence and grabbed the deer’s horns and the boy escaped over the fence in record time.
The men suddenly realized they were trapped. They couldn’t let go of the thrashing, snorting deer without getting hurt. The rescuers needed to be rescued.
It was a long wait. One passerby offered to shoot the deer with a Luger automatic pistol fetched from his car, but that plan was rejected.
At last, three men devised a rescue strategy. They removed their belts, climbed over the fence and used the belts to tie the deer’s horns to a tree. The belts held the frantic buck just long enough for all five men to escape. As they dropped to the ground outside the enclosure, the buck broke loose and charged the fence, one belt dangling from its horns.
That dramatic incident was the only recorded attack by an animal in more than one hundred years of Beacon Hill Park Zoo operations (1889-1990). No animal ever injured a park visitor.
It wasn’t humans who were in danger at the zoo. Vulnerable captive animals needed protection from people. Victoria residents and their dogs constantly harassed, injured and killed park birds and animals every year. The deer attack was an understandable defensive response to humans invading its small territory. More difficult to understand is why humans shot arrows into mallards, stoned swans, poked bears with sticks and decapitated peacocks decade after decade.
Deer were the most frequent targets. Park Administrator W. H. Warren reported in 1931: “During the last few years the records show no fewer than five deer...have been killed by dogs.” One park deer was shot in 1937, two more in 1942. Trails of blood leading to the parking lot from holes cut in the eight-foot chain-link fence in 1958 and 1971 were evidence of deer killed and hauled away. In 1984, two large dogs leaped a three-metre fence and killed a four-year-old doe. Humans regularly pelted captive deer with rocks. When two darts made from sharpened two-inch nails were found in a buck deer’s rump in 1968, the Victoria Daily Times printed the above photo of the injured deer.
In 1990, the last wild mammal left in the park was a coastal blacktail doe. “Social attitudes change and perhaps the idea of captive wildlife is not acceptable,” SPCA inspector Rick West explained. “It’s a responsibility and a worry when you have animals confined--there’s vandalism and stray dogs.” The doe was moved to Royal Roads Military College grounds to join others running free.
Though deer enclosures included grass, trees and enough space to evade poking sticks, conditions were far worse for other zoo animals. Wolves, coyotes and lynx paced cages barely long enough to turn around. Bears were kept in wet pits. Seals, fenced in Fountain Lake for seven years, failed “to thrive” and were killed by vandals. Seven Bald eagles shared a park cage too small to stretch their wings; nearby owls and hawks shared the same fate. In 1944, the SPCA protested to the city: “The Aviary is poorly situated, being surrounded by trees which practically exclude all sunlight.”
Victoria wasn’t the only city with inferior zoo conditions. Around the world, zoo keepers had little understanding of the needs of wild animals or what to feed them. “Bread and milk mixed with boiled rice was the staple diet for numerous species in most zoos,” zoo historian David Hancocks explained. “The daily ration for the elephant at the Jardin de Plantes was eighty pounds of bread, twelve pints of wine, and two bucketfuls of gruel...” Monkeys exhibited in Beacon Hill Park were unlikely to have eaten fruit. According to Hancocks, “Fruit was for some reason considered generally unsuitable for monkeys.”
Despite poor conditions in the aviary, the most famous bird in Victoria’s zoo set an all-time longevity record. The Demoiselle crane named “Abdul the Squawker” reached the age of 34 in 1960, beating the famous Kermode bear by ten years. A club wielding attacker broke Abdul’s wing the same year, but at least Abdul missed the great aviary slaughter of 1981 when someone broke into the aviary and killed 48 birds.
Large numbers of pheasants released in the park didn’t survive either. In 1952, Park Administrator W. H. Warren glumly reported: “Some fifty Golden pheasants, native of China, have been released in the last five years...only two or three are left...they are run down by cars, caught by dogs and killed by vandals...”
There was one success story. A population of Blue Indian peafowl released into the park survives to this day. 20-25 of their descendants can be heard and seen in and near the Children’s Farm, where they are still fed by the city but not confined. Colourful males, called peacocks, get more attention from park visitors than drab females, called peahens.
Since 1990, the only mammals and birds held captive in the Park have been displayed seasonally in the privately operated Children’s Farm. However, many wild birds nest by choice in the park, including spectacular Great blue herons, Bald eagles and Cooper’s hawks.