The Toronto Zoo

“I heard that the Toronto zoo might be closed down. How can you do that? It’s Canada’s most important zoo. It’s known for its conservation activities itsand interactive education.”

I phoned him because I love zoos. I think they’re one of the few ways we have of teaching respect for other species. They’re a bit of hope in a world where the number of endangered species increases every day. He’d picked up the phone because we’d been friends when we were young. We saw each other maybe once a year or so. I’d heard he was politically connected. Now he was a big shot, living in a house in Forest Hill, driving a car that cost about the same as my mortgage.

“It’s sitting on prime land,” he said. “Seven hundred and ten acres. Do you know what that would be worth to a developer?“

“What about the animals?” I asked.

He hesitated, cleared his throat and said, “You never heard this from me. Okay? I’m just an advisor.”

`”Okay,” I said.

“They’ve got to cut the budget. Everything has to be on the table. They`ve got to able to discuss every possibility. Interest payments are killing them.”

`”Sure,” I said.

“The first thought was sell off the animals, shut down the zoo, put the land up for sale. Simple, clean. Easy to understand but then my grandkids heard the idea and their class had just gone to the zoo. My granddaughter loves the monkeys and my grandson loves the lions.” There was a long pause. I could hear him shifting in his chair. “It`s gotta be user pay. Not you and me pay. User pay. Toronto has changed. Another suggestion is to increase revenue. There are high class restaurants that like serving exotic food. There are a lot of people who`ll pay big dollars for a rhino steak or lion chops.`”

`”I`ve heard of them,” I said.

“It`s no different than breeding cows or pigs or chickens. There`s even a big demand for snake. I don`t get it but some people are into snake soup. We`ve got the facilities. We`ve got the vets. We can supply zebra or water buffalo anywhere in the world. Butcher it, chop it up, package it. Onto a plane. My wife buys lamb from New Zealand. What`s the difference?”

`”I don`t know,” I said. And I didn`t. What`s the difference? There was a package of ground buffalo in my fridge. How’s a buffalo any different from a giraffe? “It just doesn’t seem right.”

“There’s no money,” he said. He sounded exasperated. “Nobody wants anything cut. Nobody wants more taxes. Let somebody else pay. We want, we want, we want. Like a bunch of little kids. It’s like my granddaughter. She wanted a new bike. She just got a new bike a couple of months ago. Her dad said he couldn’t afford it right now. She said, ‘Put it on your credit card.’ Eight years old. Don’t save for it. Don’t work for it. Put it on your credit card. What are we teaching kids today?’”

“It’s the best zoo in Canada.”

“Maybe we can’t afford to be the best in everything anymore. You want a cancer operation or you want to see the chimps? You want bus service or you want to look at a wart hog? You still out there on that island?”

“Yeah,” I admitted.

“You should’ve come to Toronto, used your brains to do some business, you’d be driving a Mercedes. You’d have been a neighbour. You got a better plan?”

“No,” I admitted. “But I haven’t been trying to come up with one.”

“Call me in a week. Give me a better plan than sell the animals, subdivide the land, sell it to the developers. Or find a way to cut operating costs and bring in revenue. No more somebody else pay. It pays for itself or it goes.”

There was a long pause. I could hear him breathing. Short, sharp, exasperated breaths. He was a heavy smoker, always exasperated, in a hurry. He didn’t have time to be retired. He’d be fidgeting with some papers, deciding whether to invest in some start-up company. Time was money. Friendship was fine for old time’s sake but talking to me wasn’t helping the bottom line.

“Toronto has changed,” he said. “It can’t afford to be number one on somebody else’s money. Like the Greeks. Like everybody. Put it on your credit card. The world has changed. Do you read the news out there? No more Santa Clause. Let Vancouver be number one. ” He took a long, deep breath then let it out slowly. “You didn’t hear it from me,” he said, then he hung up.

Rob Ford’s Ferris Wheel

At one time it was Toronto the Good. Then it became Toronto the Smug. The people who lived there believed it was superior to everywhere else in Canada. Torontonians were supposed to be more cultured, better educated, more literate, more sophisticated than their country cousins. Winnipeg might have the Royal Winnipeg Ballet or Rainbow Stage or The Winnipeg Art Gallery but that was small potatoes and look at the downtown. Decaying. The Portage and Main area haunted by people who sniff gas and drink cheap sherry in the stairwells of parkades. In any case, real culture was in Toronto. That’s where the class acts came to act. 
Vancouver? Well, Vancouver might have the Queen E, Vancouver Playhouse and the Orpheum Theatre. Vancouver also supports major civic facilities such as the Vancouver Art Gallery, Vancouver Museum, Maritime Museum, the Pacific Space Centre, and Science World.  But it’s brash, a city of all new money, a city of social climbers and misfits who have long hair and insist on parading nude on the beach. But, it believes in libraries.
Now that Toronto is no longer the cultural capital of Canada, the denizens of Forest Hill have to give up their attitude of superiority. All that sets them apart is the price of their houses. Vancouver can beat them on that. Imagine, if all you’ve got to brag about is that your house is more expensive than someone else’s? But those people who frequent Bloor and Young have got to give up feeling that just being in Toronto makes up for their daily lives.
For awhile, Torontonians can still wallow in the illusion that they’re superior. But we already know that’s not true. It’ll be hard on their vanity but no one can really blame us if we smile into our hand as Toronto shuts down its libraries. Replaces libraries with a ferris wheel. Toronto the Smug has begun the process of becoming a cultural wasteland similar to the physical wasteland of Detroit.
It used to be when some of those four million people came back home for a summer visit and you asked them where they were living, they said, “In Taronna.” In a voice that also said “And you aren’t.” They obviously felt superior. That’s all over. They used to brag about the CBC being headquartered in Toronto. All those radio and TV programs were produced there. All those stars lived there. So they felt like a star, too. That’ll soon be gone. A city that doesn’t believe reading matters is a city that can’t grasp the kind of programs the CBC produces. FOX NEWS will soon become the Toronto icon. It goes with the circus on the waterfront. You don’t need to know much to ride on a ferris wheel.
Was this how Rome fell? Because people quit believing that education mattered? That culture was an expensive luxury Rome couldn’t afford? If libraries don’t matter, one has to ask what is the purpose of universities? Essentially, universities teach people how to read. Imagine the money that could be saved if the University of Toronto were shut down. Those buildings could be turned into condos and pubs and strip joints. Except, of course, for engineering. You have to have people who can build big ferris wheels and carnival rides and keep them running. But those people could be trained at a technical college.
If Rob Ford has ambitions to become premier, he needs to make a list of all those institutions that are of no more value to the people of Toronto than libraries. Then show he is serious by shutting them down. Theatres jump to mind. Ballet. Art schools. Art galleries. Why would any real Torontonian want to watch a bunch of adults wandering around a stage playing let’s pretend, or grown men in tights hopping about a stage, or go to some place to look at a bunch of pictures? They can see pictures in the Sear’s catalogue.
Those few effete intellectuals who don’t like the new Toronto can leave. They can go other places where people are prepared to waste their hard earned tax money on libraries and those other things effete intellectuals like. They can go to places like Winnipeg or Vancouver or Saskatoon or Fredericton. They can go to Calgary. Even Calgarians believe in libraries. And some of that other stuff. Or they can go to my home town, Gimli. We’ve got a small but good library in Gimli. It’s named after one of the teachers who educated many generations of us. She taught us to read and to love literature. People go there to read, to borrow books, to do research. Teachers bring kids there to show them that we value reading and writing, that literacy is important.
Of course, we don’t have the biggest ferris wheel in the world, or dodgem cars or freak shows or roller coasters so most Torontonians wouldn’t be interested. And don’t protest, those of you who live in this fallen city. You elected him. He must reflect your values.