Hay River ‘Zoo’ renovations almost complete

Renovation work on a former Hay River hotel more commonly known as the Zoo” is almost complete. It will become an exhibit at the Hay River Heritage Centre next year.

The original building opened in the 1950s and spent time as a hotel, bar, restaurant, post office, drug store and bank according to Tom Lakusta, chair of the Hay River Heritage Centre board.

The Zoo was slated for demolition last year. However, the contractor carrying out the work realized a section could be saved, detached it from the decaying portion, and offered it to the museum.


Lakusta said staff and some residents were pleasantly surprised that they could keep a portion of the town’s history alive.

A photo of the Hay River Hotel when it was still operational. Photo: Supplied

“A piece of their community was just basically going to be bulldozed,” Lakusta said.

“When a part of it got saved, I think people were pretty excited about it.

“They didn’t just demolish the whole thing, they recognized that there were pieces of this [building] that were historically important to the community.”


Sections of the Zoo being restored by the heritage centre include the former drug store, bank and post office.

The exact form the finished exhibit will take is to be determined. Lakusta speculated it may involve filling the space with mementoes from the building’s former incarnations or rotating art exhibits.

A grant of approximately $95,000 from the NWT’s Department of Industry, Tourism and Investment allowed the heritage centre to breathe new life into the building.

Over the summer the group stabilized the foundation, cleaned up the side of the building that was detached from the hotel, patched the roof, replaced the windows, floors and doors, and fixed the electrical systems.  


Lakusta said a safety inspection of the electrical wiring is still awaited, after which the major renovations will be complete.

The nickname’s origin

The original building was made of cedar logs brought up from British Columbia, and assembled into a hotel that the community came to love, Lakusta said.

How the building got its nickname is not entirely clear to him.

“Back in the ’60s and ’70s, in many small towns, many of the more active bars got nicknames,” he said.

“I think it was just a name the patrons gave it, a fun name for the bar part of the hotel. But the hotel really embraced it.”

The museum has acquired the original Zoo sign that once hung outside the building and plans to restore it to its former location.

Lakusta says a flood in 1963 began the building’s demise. Houses and schools moved over to the main side of town and out of the flood plain, leaving the Zoo struggling for customers.

The building sat empty for the past 15 to 20 years according to Lakusta. As NNSL reported last year, the Department of Infrastructure deemed the structure a health and safety hazard.

Lakusta says the museum will ask owners of former business in the Zoo for old relics they may be willing to donate.

The new exhibit is expected to open in late spring or early summer 2021.

If you have items to donate, contact the heritage centre.

“I don’t know what’s around and, of the stuff that is still around, I don’t know what people might be willing to donate to the heritage centre,” Lakusta said.

“There certainly are people in this town that are going to want to remember it in as close a shape to what they last saw it in.”