Cabbagetown’s Menagerie Pet Shop offers animals and more
If she could only speak, what tales the giant lizard of Cabbagetown might tell.
With a perfect view of Parliament St., over the past 30 years the 25-foot green iguana sculpture named Lizzy has seen it all from her perch over the Menagerie Pet Shop. “Cabbagetown had a bit of a rough-and-tumble reputation around our intersection at Parliament and Winchester, home of the legendary Winchester Tavern,” says Kaelo Gallagher, the store’s owner, “A mix of locals, bikers and brawlers, and celebrities looking to hide away in the hotel above the tavern, would spill out into the street late at night – or so legend has it.”
Lizzy might also talk about the changes the neighbourhood has experienced in the last half-century since the Menagerie has been in business.
(Take a walk through Cabbagetown and the Garden District with musician John Orpheus.)
Thanks to a group of citizens who successfully fought to save the brick buildings in the 1970s, Cabbagetown – which began as a working-class area – now has “the largest continuous area of preserved Victorian housing in all of North America,” according to the Cabbagetown Preservation Association. This has turned the neighbourhood into one of Toronto’s most popular, attracting affluent residents. There’s also lots of green space – dog-friendly Riverdale, Wellesley and Winchester parks are all within minutes of the Menagerie.
Founded by Peter Coppin in mid-1970s, the shop was purchased by Garen Yaghdjian – then “a tiny store,” Yaghdjian says – in 1980. He expanded the Menagerie, which now sprawls through three adjoining townhouses. After two decades of managing the shop, Gallagher bought it from Yaghdjian in 2016 with then-partner Levana Gallagher.
The store has evolved from its early days as a local pet shop into a destination for many from throughout the city and beyond. Lizzy – built by Canadian artist Lance Dutrizac in the early ’90s – is famous in her own right and draws a crowd. “People stopped every day to take pictures,” says Yaghdjian. “I’ve had people from around the world send photos back to the shop.”
Before the pandemic, Gallagher says, “we enjoyed being an attraction for folks just passing by and for those looking to visit the animals – Menagerie is a permanent home to 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 in just to visit them, and our in-house experts always seem to get a kick out of playing zookeeper when they have an audience.”
As popular as these animals are, they are not for sale, Gallagher says, as they “require a level of care that most pet owners can’t handle.” The store also refuses to sell cats, dogs and rabbits, due to the high number of surrenders. Instead, Menagerie deals in animals Gallagher feels have a high chance of thriving in their forever homes: hundreds of types of freshwater fish, bettas, snakes, lizards and hamsters. “Over the years we have gained a reputation as the place to go for reptiles and fish,” Gallagher says.
Before selling a reptile, the staff have a conversation with the buyer to ensure they have the right supplies, enclosure, and care instructions. “We are there to help pet owners get the best for their companions,” he says. “The more we can educate customers, the better we all do.”
The shop also carries a variety of natural and holistic pet foods and raw diets. “Our raw food suppliers are right here in Ontario,” Gallagher says. “Customers like 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, Gallagher says, “especially in the muddy seasons.”
As with most businesses, Menagerie was deeply impacted by the pandemic. “We had to reinvent ourselves on the fly,” Gallagher says. “We had already started on our online store, but had to get our poop together in a hurry. Each day seemed to present an entirely new set of circumstances.”
Although Menagerie has survived thanks to its reputation and to its 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 widen our audience,” he says. “Ten years ago, we never imagined we would have to go to such lengths. The experience has been like learning a new career.”
Gallagher, who currently lives in an apartment above the shop, is thrilled to see the neighbourhood thrive, but laments that property in the area has become prohibitively expensive, putting his goal of owning Menagerie’s building out of reach. “It’s a shame,” he says. “If the building sells to a developer, our future here could be in jeopardy.”
In the meantime, Gallagher never tires of Cabbagetown’s diversity, its architecture, restaurants, and the relationships among the locals. “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 the conversations along the way. Many of us have put down roots and may never leave. The neighbourhood itself has had many changes – some good, some bad – but through the years, Cabbagetown has always felt like home.”
Just ask Lizzy.
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