A Bear Story

1960s

A Bear Story

Era: 

  • 1968 - 1982
 
There is just one complete study skeleton of the huge Brown Bear (Ursus arctos - also known as the Grizzly or Kodiak bear) in the ROM's mammalogy collection. And I remember vividly when it arrived in 1965.
 
I was a summer student in the ROM's Department of Entomology and Invertebrate Zoology during the summer following my final undergraduate year at the University of Toronto. I was working on the study which was later published as the Handbook of the Crayfishes of Ontario (Crocker and Barr, 1968). The summer was oppressively hot and so was the museum. There was no air conditioning in those days and we had all the ancient casement windows open, trying to catch even the slightest breath of moving air. 
 
Our windows in the department were on the third floor, overlooking the parking area in the south-east courtyard, just outside the ROM's back-door, or security entrance. That morning we began to detect an oppressive odour wafting in through the windows from the courtyard below. By early afternoon it was nearly unbearable.
 
Finally, at afternoon coffee-break when staff from several departments usually gathered to exchange stories, we learned what was going on. A giant Brown Bear had died at the Riverdale Zoo, and in the interests of science its body was donated to the ROM so the skeleton could be prepared for study. The animal was so large that it could not easily be accommodated in the Mammalogy Department's laboratories. So the technicians charged with the job of fleshing out the carcass had to do it under the hot July sun of the south-east courtyard. The rest of us wondered if the pursuit of science were worth the colossal olfactory agony we were going through. Fortunately, the job only took a couple of days and then the partially cleaned skeleton was turned over to the ROM's bug room to finish the job.
 
The bear's former home, the Riverdale Zoo located in the Cabbagetown area, had been Toronto's main showcase for live lions, tigers and bears since its founding in 1890. There was a close relationship between zoo staff and museum staff. And indeed, museum curators, especially Dr. Bev Scott, were instrumental in the planning needed to provide new homes for the wild animals of the Riverdale Zoo at the new Metro Toronto Zoo that opened in 1975.
 
The ROM's Mammalogy Department was headed up in those days by Dr. Randolph L. (Pete) Peterson, so he would have been responsible for recognizing the value of adding the bear skeleton to the collection. Strangely enough, I had known both Pete and all about the process of preparing mammalian skeletons for research for some years before the summer of '65. During my high-school years I had worked summers and Saturdays at Boreal Biological Laboratories where skeletons were prepared for educational use. This scientific supply house was run by Pete's wife Elizabeth, and through that job I met Pete and had the opportunity to tell him of my interest in studying insects.
 
It was a great job for two reasons. For one, I was able to make enough money one summer to buy my first microscope. And for a second, Pete introduced me to Dr. Glenn B. Wiggins, head of the ROM's Department of Entomology and Invertebrate Zoology. As a result I actually worked in the ROM invertebrate collection during Christmas vacation from high school, cleaning up soot that had been borne through the open windows in summer and deposited on the row upon row of glass jars containing specimens preserved in alcohol. From sooty jars to crayfishes to a giant bear skeleton - ROM collects and recollects. And they say olfactory memories are the strongest.
 
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Thanks to ROM's Burton Lim for providing information on the specimens of Ursus arctos in the ROM collection.
 
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