On any given summer day, thousands of people from Detroit and its neighborhoods flock to Belle Isle, a two-and-a-half mile long island park situated in the Detroit river. Featuring boat clubs, fishing peirs, swimming, and picnic pavilions, the park has been a getaway destination for generations of residents. The crowds of people and their activities create a vibrant sound, a sort hum that follows you around most of the island.
But with a brief detour down an overgrown trail in the center of the island, the sounds of car horns and children shouting start to fade, then disappear altogether. Past sections of rusted chain link fence, rush and thickets give way to a broad field of waist-high grass flanked by elevated wooden walkways on either side, punctuated by a strange set of overgrown wooden-domed buildings. You're now standing in one of Detroit's most shameful victims of neglect and corruption: The abandoned Belle Isle Children's Zoo.
Starting in 1910, Belle Isle was home to the Detroit Zoo. Pictures from the era show happy crowds of well-dressed kids and fathers in suits queuing up to see tiger cubs, seals, elephants, and other animals. In 1956 the zoo moved to its current home in Royal Oak , and the Belle Isle location became a children's zoo.
Sometime in the 1980's the Belle Isle Children's Zoo was renovated and renamed Safariland. Operating in partnership with the nearby conservatory, the zoo carried on with an increasingly odd retune of animal residents. One such resident was an unnamed nine-month old bear who in June of 1980 managed to escape from her enclosure and swam the half mile across the Detroit river to Windsor, Canada. After public outcry and a "free the bear" campaign, the unnamed bear was released back into the wild.
In its final years, the island's remaining herd of inbred European Fallow Deer were moved into to the zoo. By 2002, budgetary problems coupled with declining attendance caused the facility to delay opening for the season. Then-mayor Kwame Kilpatrick decided to keep the zoo closed, citing funding issues and the city's growing deficit.
In 2004, a public campaign by groups including the Friends of Belle Isle resulted in the passage of a local bond issue to fund reopening the park. Kilpatrick responded by using those funds to build a new nature zoo at the other end of the island, awarding the construction contracts worth millions of dollars to a firm that had close ties to the Kilpatrick Family.
As of 2010, there are no plans to reopen the old zoo.