If only she could talk, what stories the giant Cabbagetown lizard could tell.
With a picture-perfect view of Parliament Street, for the past 30 years the 25ft green iguana sculpture named Lizzy has seen it all from her perch above the Menagerie Pet Shop. “Cabbagetown used to have a bit of a rough reputation around our intersection of Parliament and Winchester, where the legendary Winchester Tavern is located,” says store manager Kaelo Gallagher. owner, “A mix of locals, bikers and brawlers, and celebrities seeking to hide in the hotel above the tavern, would spill into the street late at night – or so legend has it. .”
Lizzy could also talk about the changes the neighborhood has seen in the past half century since the Menagerie has been in operation.
(Walk through Cabbagetown and the Garden District with musician John Orpheus.)
Thanks to a group of citizens who fought successfully to save brick buildings in the 1970s, Cabbagetown – which began as a working-class neighborhood – now has “the largest continuous area of preserved Victorian housing in all of America. North,” according to the Cabbagetown Preservation Association. This transformed the neighborhood into one of Toronto’s most popular, attracting affluent residents. There’s plenty of green space, too – the dog-friendly Riverdale, Wellesley and Winchester parks are all within minutes of the Menagerie.
Founded by Peter Coppin in the mid-1970s, the shop was bought by Garen Yaghdjian – then “a small shop”, says Yaghdjian – in 1980. He expanded the Menagerie, which now spans three terraced houses. After two decades of running the boutique, Gallagher bought it from Yaghdjian in 2016 along with then-partner Levana Gallagher.
The store has evolved from its beginnings as a local pet store to become a destination for many people from all over town and beyond. Lizzy – built by Canadian artist Lance Dutrizac in the early 90s – is famous in its own right and draws crowds. “People stopped every day to take pictures,” says Yaghdjian. “I’ve had people all over the world send photos back to the store.”
Before the pandemic, says Gallagher, “we loved being an attraction for passersby and for those looking to visit the animals — the Menagerie is a permanent home for Leroy, a green iguana, 30-year-old Amazon parrots Jade and Chakita, and Pinky, a Goffin’s Cockatoo – and talk to our staff. Many people know our animals by name and come just to visit, and our in-house experts always seem to enjoy playing zookeeper when they have an audience.
As popular as these pets are, they’re not for sale, Gallagher says, because they “require a level of care that most pet owners can’t afford.” The store also refuses to sell cats, dogs and rabbits, due to the high number of surrenders. Instead, Menagerie sells Gallagher animals feel are likely to thrive in their forever homes: hundreds of types of freshwater fish, bettas, snakes, lizards and hamsters. “Over the years we’ve developed a reputation as the place to go for reptiles and fish,” says Gallagher.
Before selling a reptile, staff have a conversation with the buyer to ensure they have the correct supplies, enclosure and care instructions. “We’re here to help pet owners get the most out of their companions,” he says. “The more we can educate customers, the better we all do.”
The shop also offers a variety of natural and holistic pet foods and raw diets. “Our raw food suppliers are right here in Ontario,” says Gallagher. “Customers love knowing they support local farms and family businesses.” The store’s own line of branded merchandise includes funky t-shirts and pins. One of the store’s most popular features is the do-it-yourself dog wash, says Gallagher, “especially in muddy seasons.”
Like most businesses, Menagerie has been deeply affected by the pandemic. “We had to reinvent ourselves on the fly,” says Gallagher. “We had already started on our online store, but we had to gather our poop in a hurry. Each day seemed to present an entirely new set of circumstances.
Although Menagerie has survived on its reputation and loyal customers, Gallagher says the cost of doing business has more than doubled since before the pandemic. “Offering our products and delivery through new avenues like DoorDash, Instacart, Uber, etc. really helps expand our audience,” he says. “Ten years ago, we would never have imagined that we would have to go this far. The experience was like learning a new career.
Gallagher, who currently lives in an apartment above the store, is delighted to see the neighborhood prosper, but laments that property in the area has become prohibitively expensive, putting his goal of owning the Menagerie building out of reach. “It’s a shame,” he said. “If the building sells to a developer, our future here could be in jeopardy.”
In the meantime, Gallagher never tires of the diversity of Cabbagetown, its architecture, its restaurants and the relationships between the locals, the residents. “It’s like a small village where everyone knows each other,” he says. “It can sometimes take twice as long to walk a block because of conversations along the way. Many of us have put down roots and may never leave. The neighborhood itself has seen many changes – some good, some bad – but over the years Cabbagetown has always felt like home.