PO Box 523, Station B, Ottawa, ON, K1P 5P6
Tuesday, 24 October 2023 21:19

Animal Tales of Ottawa

Randy Boswell, noted journalist, educator, researcher and frequent presenter for the Historical Society of Ottawa was our guest speaker at our in-person session of October 21, 2023, hosted again by the Main Branch of the Ottawa Public Library. Randy, who estimates that he has written some 400 – 500 animal based stories throughout his career, thoroughly entertained his audience, which despite inclement weather and Queensway closures, numbered 37.

Randy noted that Ottawa has lots of green space, waterways and semi-wilderness areas and as such is a wonderful place for animals and animal encounters. He pointed out that many of our most meaningful animal encounters happen not with wild animals but with our own pets. Randy showed us photos and related stories about a number of pets, including his own, with celebrity connections.

Pat was, for 17 years, the strength, inspiration, confidant and partner of his human companion, who wrote of Pat almost daily in his diary. On the 17 th July, 1941, just two days after Pat’s death, his grief-ridden companion, compelled by his own duties, officiated at the opening of the Lord Elgin Hotel. Dressed in a gray suit, a black tie in mourning of Pat, and with bright flowers in the buttonhole of his coat, that he had picked from Pat’s grave that very morning, he managed to get through the ceremonies, nearly breaking down toward the end. Prime Minister William Lyon MacKenzie King went on to have two more dogs, both of which he also named Pat.

Rustie, an orange cat, (her name often being misspelled as Rusty), who also lived for some 17 years, was widely reported to have gotten too heavily into the catnip one night, going on a bender and becoming totally intoxicated, while celebrating the first Mayoral victory of her companion, Charlotte Whitton. Charlotte created the “Rustie Whitton Memorial Trophy” in Rustie’s honour and presented it annually for the National Capital Cat Club, of which she was a member. Christine Columbus was another cat of whom Charlotte was a companion.

Cats, it would seem, not only celebrated election victories but for some 40 years, took over Parliament Hill. The Parliament Hill Cat Colony, a popular attraction, was formally started in 1970 by Irène Desormeaux. Upon her death, her work was continued by René Chartrand and other volunteers. The cats received food, medical care and even custom-built housing. The sanctuary was closed in 2013, the remaining residents being adopted into good homes.

Randy told us of several animals who held key roles at Rideau Hall and of a little known feature of that property.

George, an Irish Setter whose companion was the Right Honourable Vincent Massey, our first Canadian-born Governor General, is well remembered for the help he gave to Queen Elizabeth II. During the 1957 Royal Visit, George carried her handbag on a short walk around the grounds of Rideau Hall. Cashew joined the staff of Governor General Jules Leger, after the latter had suffered a serious stroke. It was Cashew’s job to walk the Governor General around the grounds and so aid in his recovery. A press conference was held to introduce Cashew to the public, but, unfortunately, he was somewhat overshadowed by the arrival of Margret Trudeau, who as an aspiring photo-journalist had decided to attend the event. Perhaps strangest of all animals who found themselves in a role at Rideau Hall were two moose presented to the Marquess of Lorne, while he served as Governor General. He decided that these animals should be put to harness and used to pull his carriage. The Rideau Hall coachman, Harry Bristow, was given the task, which seems to have met with some, though limited success. On one occasion, in order to demonstrate how well trained the moose were, one was brought into the dining room at Rideau Hall, where it apparently behaved. Randy went on to let us know about a dark sidebar to this story. The two moose were the gift of Edgar Dewdney, a key figure in the development of the Residential School system in Canada and someone who used access to food to starve Indigenous peoples into submission.

The grounds of Rideau Hall hold within them an unexpected feature, a pet cemetery. George, Vincent Massey’s dog, is one of about a dozen pets of former Governors General that are buried here. Included in this number is the Black Lab of H.R.H. The Duke of Connaught, who served as our Governor General from 1911 to 1916. This particular Black Lab had a name, although common for black dogs at that time, we now recognize to be a very offensive racial slur. Upon the dog’s death it was buried in the pet cemetery, a tombstone marking his grave and proudly displaying its name for all to see. Finally, in 1993, almost 80 years after it had been erected, Ray Hnatyshyn, during his term as Governor General, ordered the removal of the offending marker.

Randy explained that not all animal stories relate to recent animals, some involve those from the long past.

Elkanah Billings, of our local Billings family, was educated and worked briefly as a lawyer. Later, he became the editor of the Ottawa Citizen, but his true passion was the natural sciences. He was hired as the first paleontologist for the Geological Survey of Canada . While in this role he received some unusual samples of rocks from Newfoundland, which after careful examination, he identified as fossils of animals. As these fossils were found in a Precambrian deposit, a time when life on earth was not thought to exist, Elkanah’s claims were hotly disputed and dismissed. Time however proved his analysis correct and these samples are now among the most significant in the world.

More recently, some 13,000 – 10,000 years ago, as the last ice-sheets retreated, much of Eastern Ontario, Western Quebec and the northern portions of New York and Vermont were covered by the Champlain Sea. Randy told us of some dramatic evidence of this, the discovery in 1948, of the bones of a Beluga whale that were uncovered in a gravel pit near Uplands. The Beluga has since found a home in the Museum of Nature.

As we were running short of time, we reluctantly, (or maybe not), chose to skip the undoubtedly charming stories about lice and tapeworms. Fortunately, you can read these, along with many other fabulous stories and view the photos, for yourself as Randy has generously shared his complete presentation with us — see the featured document: A Menagerie of Ottawa Animal Tales.