Gorilla keeper Linda Ervine on working at the Toronto Zoo

It was love at first sight when Barney the gorilla met future zookeeper Linda Ervine. “The moment I entered the quarantine area,” Ervine remembers, “Barney ran up to me hooting and crying and latched onto my leg.”

The Metropolitan Toronto Zoo had not even opened its gates to visitors when Ervine signed on as a keeper trainee in January 1974. “After a couple of weeks training,” she says, “I was asked to look after the first two gorillas who had just arrived for their quarantine period.” While Barney, who had been the runt of his litter, bonded quickly with Ervine, she says “his partner Caroline was shyer and took longer to trust me.”

Before the zoo opened that August, the city’s exotic animals were kept in small and gloomy structures with concrete floors and iron bars at what is now Riverdale Farm. Animal lovers were delighted when plans were announced for a new zoo where animals could roam relatively freely in more natural environments. Ervine leaped at the chance to be part of it.

“I had been writing letters to the board since I heard the zoo was being built,” she says. “At my interview, I brought along a research paper I had done on primate behaviour at the old Riverdale Zoo, for a primatology course at York University.”

Her passion for primates led Ervine on a long journey with Barney, as seen in this photo shot for the Star in August 1977. “I thought this would be just part of my training,” Ervine says, “but I ended up moving with the gorillas to the new African Pavilion and worked with them for the next 11 years.”

Ervine also dealt with many other African and Eurasian animals. “As keepers, we were responsible for all day-to-day care,” she says. “While feeding and cleaning took the majority of the time, observation, record keeping, reporting concerns, enriching the animals’ environment, and speaking with visitors were also important aspects of the job.”

Over her 30-plus years with the zoo, Ervine was part of a devoted team that built it up to a world-class resource and attraction. “I was fortunate to work with a great group of people, laying a foundation for a new institution and helping to work through the growing pains,” says Ervine, who set up the first recycling program and later worked in management. “A few years post-retirement, I came back part-time for a short time to research and compile a plan to incorporate environmental responsibility into all zoo operations.”

Today, Ervine lives in a building that doesn’t allow pets. “So,” she says, “my main interaction with wildlife now is birdwatching.”

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By Jon Doe