Where the wild things aren't: 8 abandoned zoos and animal parks
Eerie and unsettling perhaps, but deserted zoos also make for some excellent urban exploration.
Thu, Jul 24, 2014 at 09:36 AM
Imagine a zoo stripped of animals, concession stands and overexcited children; a zoo, forgotten by time, that’s been, for one reason or another, forsaken and left to rot; a zoo where overgrown pathways, deteriorating habitats and rusting cages are the main attraction; a zoo that, after decades of abandonment, has been reclaimed by Mother Nature.
Like their also-creepy cousins, deserted amusement parks, long-defunct zoos and animal parks can be eerie, unsettling and even poetic. Venturing into a shuttered zoo can also be a hugely sobering experience for animal lovers, an experience that provides an uncomfortable glimpse back into the not-so-distant past when zoos, instead of focusing on wildlife research and conservation, existed purely for entertainment purposes and were composed of cramped cages and primitive habitats. In many cases, it’s a good thing that these antiquated menageries were shuttered.
Here you’ll find eight abandoned zoos that, in their afterlife, have become urban exploration hotspots. Like with all abandoned places, making a pilgrimage to these decaying animal parks might be considered trespassing; a select few are accessible to the public and, even then, many folks stay far away due to the high heebie-jeebies factor.
Is there a left-in-ruins zoo that we left off the list that you’ve personally explored? Tell us about the experience in the comments section.
1. Belle Isle Zoo: Detroit, Michigan
(Photo: Joseph Stevenson/Flickr)
Detroit, a city in economic ruin with blight as far as the eye can see, is home to an abandoned zoo. No big surprise here.
To be clear, this isn’t the Detroit Zoo but a smaller, older zoo within Belle Isle State Park, a sprawling, 982-acre island park located smack dab in the middle of the Detroit River. According to the Belle Isle Conservancy, the modest zoo opened to the public in 1895 sporting a “a deer park and a bear den.” By 1909, the 32-acre zoo had grown to be 150 critters-strong. (Established in 1911, the Detroit Zoo in the suburb of Royal Oak didn’t officially open until 1928). In 1947, the Belle Isle Zoo was rebranded and renamed Detroit Children’s Zoo – after all, Detroit was now a two-zoo town and the zoo at Belle Isle Park needed to differentiate itself from its younger, larger sibling.
In the 1970s, the kid-friendly menagerie at Belle Isle Park was shuttered and reopened in the early 80s with a newfangled safari theme. In 2002, the zoo at Belle Isle Park was, despite heavy opposition from the City Council, closed altogether under the direction of disgraced former mayor Kwame Kilpatrick.
A popular ruin porn destination in an already ruin porn-heavy city, the current Belle Isle Park Zoo – complete with graffiti-covered buildings, wild dogs and knee-high weeds – attracts seasoned urban explorers and camera-wielding curiosity seekers. Calling the zoo “one of Detroit’s most shameful victims of neglect and corruption,” the urban exploration website Detroiturbex sets an eerie scene: “… 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.”
Adding to the creepiness factor, a mummified body was found near the zoo in April 2014. According to authorities, the corpse had been there for “a long period of time.”
You can take a video tour of the Belle Isle Zoo in its current state or visit it in happier times circa 1968.
2. Griffith Park Zoo: Los Angeles, California
(Photo: Omar Bárcena/Flickr)
Home to horror campouts, restless feline spirits and Instagram-ops aplenty, the old zoo at Griffith Park in Los Angeles has been closed since 1966 when it was shuttered after five long – and at times troubled – decades in operation to make way for the new Los Angeles Zoo, also at Griffith Park.
However, aside from an obvious lack of captive wild animals, it’s difficult to refer to the old Griffith Park Zoo, built on the cheap and opened to the public in 1912 on the site of a former ostrich farm, as being truly abandoned: the grounds – complete with falling-apart structures, graffiti-clad caves, spooky stairwells, fenced-off enclosures and iron-barred cages aplenty – are buzzing with life having been reborn as a somewhat unlikely outdoor recreation hotspot that’s open to the public year-round (no worries about trespassing!) as a hiking, dog-walking, photo-taking and picnicking destination.
That being said, it’s the only forsaken zoo on this list that also has over 100 enthusiastic Yelp reviews. One user refers to the old Griffith Park Zoo as being “relaxing and creepy at the same time” while many Yelpers lament that the zoo isn’t abandoned enough.
And even though it may be positively crawling with people during a weekend afternoon, during quieter moments the old zoo can still be totally unnerving – those with delicate constitutions shouldn’t venture forth alone, especially after dark. Bring a hard-to-spook buddy. After all, you’ll need someone to operate the camera for those provocative monkey cage glamor shots and that cheeky photo-shoot in the faux-sandstone bear grotto that you might recognize from “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy” (or the second “Police Academy” movie).
3. Stanley Park Zoo: Vancouver, British Columbia
Created at the turn of the century somewhat by accident thanks in part to the animal-collecting habits of park ranger Henry Avison, Vancouver’s Stanley Park Zoo evolved from a small menagerie into a bona fide tourist attraction, complete with a crowd-generating Polar Bear Pit, by the mid-1960s.
Despite being beloved by visitors and locals alike, the zoo, located within one of the most stunning urban parks in the world, was closed to the public in 1996 after voters decided in 1994 to phase it out rather than help foot the bill for an expansion and much-needed upgrades. Tuk, a 36-year-old polar bear, too old to be relocated from his antiquated concrete grotto, remained at the zoo until his death from pneumonia in 1997. With Tuk’s passing, the zoo officially closed.
Today, Tuk’s former habitat is the only remaining structure standing at the abandoned Stanley Park Zoo and has been converted to serve a rather unique new purpose: a demonstration salmon hatchery. We’d like to think that Tuk, busy fishing for tasty salmon in the great polar bear beyond, would approve of this adaptive reuse measure.
And if a polar bear named Tuk rings a bell, it’s probably because of a rather exceptional incident that took place at the now-defunct zoo in 1983 when a disturbed man threw a kitten, yes, a kitten, into the pool within Tuk’s enclosure. Tuk, who was enjoying a nap at the time, awoke to all the commotion and dove into the pool, retrieving the drowning kitten. He gingerly carried the kitten out of the water in his mouth to safety where he cradled the frightened tiny animal, careful not to harm it, and licked it dry with his tongue. Soon after, the kitten was safely removed from the enclosure before the heroic polar bear had the chance to, umm, change his mind.
4. Bear Dens at Franklin Park Zoo: Boston, Massachusetts
If you show up in Boston and start asking around about an abandoned zoo, you may get nothing more than a bunch of perplexed looks and exaggerated shrugs. After all, the city’s 72-acre zoo at Franklin Park – the final and largest component, the crown jewel of Boston’s Frederick Law Olmsted-designed Emerald Necklace parkway system – is very much open for business.
However, if you specify that you’re looking for the “creepy abandoned bear cages” someone might be able to point you out in the right direction – to Long Crouch Woods, just outside of the zoo’s official perimeter at its northern edge. Built in 1912 as one of the first attractions within the Arthur Shurtleff-designed zoo, the Bear Dens exhibit was unceremoniously severed from the rest of the zoo and left to rot by the Metropolitan District Commission in 1958, the same year that the zoo erected gates and started charging for admission. Once a historic centerpiece of the Franklin Park Zoo, the Bear Dens, with its courtyard-framing iron cages, grand staircase and ursine-themed sculptural stone crest, still stands in ruins to this day.
The site, long associated with all sorts of unsavory activity, is also a popular spot for a bit of old-fashioned urban exploration and serves as a sobering reminder of when zoo habitats were cramped, oppressive and anything but naturalistic. The Bear Dens is also spooky with a capitol S, like a “post-apocalyptic video game, but, you know, in real life” according to the Boston Dig, which highly recommends bringing along a buddy if you plan on doing any poking around.
5. Rhodes Zoo: Cape Town, South Africa
(Photo: Warren Rohner/Flickr)
In a country that’s also home to many well-regarded operational animal parks, this might be the prettiest derelict zoo you ever did see.
Boasting ruins set against a super-dramatic landscape that’s more breathtaking than anything, this former private menagerie-turned-full-fledged public zoo located on Cape Town’s historic Groote Schuur (“Big Barn”) estate was founded – and personally designed – by imperialist, diamond magnate and lion fancier extraordinaire Cecil Rhodes in the late 1800s. And although the old zoo, complete with a crumbling lion enclosure built into the slopes of Table Mountain, has been closed since the 1970s, it still attracts a fair number of camera-toting out-of-towners – and students from the adjacent Cape Town University campus – looking to capture some Grade-A ruin porn, South Africa-style.
If a South Africa adventure isn’t in the cards in the near future, you can always take a tour, complete with fascinating historical back story here.
6. Discovery Island at Walt Disney World: Orlando, Florida
(Photo: Sam Howzit/Flickr)
Yes, in addition to the forsaken River Country water park, there’s a completely abandoned island within the confines of Walt Disney World. Located on Bay Lake, the 11.5-acre Discovery Island (formerly Treasure Island), a Disney theme park with a zoological twist, operated from 1974 until 1999 when its resident animals (reptiles, lemurs and a wide variety of exotic birds among them) were relocated to the newly opened Disney’s Animal Kingdom and the island was closed off to park guests. Along with River Country, Discovery Island is one of only two Disney park properties to close … for good.
Given its lake-bound location and the fact that it’s, well, located within the secretive, don’t-you-dare look-behind-the-curtain realm of Disney World, the defunct Discovery Island has remain mostly out of the public eye for well over a decade. In 2009, urban explorer Shane Perez published an account, complete with photos, of a very much verboten journey to Discovery Island that he made, several years prior, with a couple of friends by swimming to the island (an initial plan to travel to the island by boat was scrapped) during the middle of the night under a cover of darkness.
Once safely – and secretly – on the island, Perez and co. encountered overgrown paths, decrepit buildings, unsettling animal noises, cumbersome spider webs, “preserved snakes in odd containers” and two highly aggressive young vultures. Sounds completely and utterly nightmarish, right? Disney, obviously, was none-too-pleased with Perez’s illicit exploits although no legal action was ever taken against him due, apparently, to Florida’s statute of limitations on trespassing.
7/8. Nay Aug Park Zoo: Scranton, Pennsylvania | Kirby Park Zoo: Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania
(Photo: Jennifer Boyer/Flickr)
Here’s a rarity: the ruins of two minor – and somewhat tragic – zoos, one shuttered in the late 1980s and the other in the 1940s, located in the same area code. As it turns out, these bygone northeastern Pennsylvania menageries, the long-troubled zoo at Scranton’s Nay Aug Park (pictured above) and the short-lived Kirby Park Zoo in neighboring Wilkes-Barre, housed a few of the same animals at one point in time.
The Nay Aug Park Zoo and the Kirby Park Zoo, both the topic of fascinating photo essays by “guerrilla historian” Cheri Sundra, existed within two larger, still very-much-existent urban park complexes. However, the crumbling remnants of the latter zoo, a once-bustling attraction that vanished during World War II following a period of decline, are shrouded in mystery, the stuff of urban legends. Were the concrete ruins at Wilkes-Barre’s Kirby Park, designed by the Olmsted Brothers – Atlanta’s Piedmont Park, Audubon Park in New Orleans and Seattle’s entire park system are among the landscape architecture firm’s best known works – even used to house animals?
While the origin and actual function of the several dilapidated structures at Kirby Park have been the subject of some dispute since being unearthed by preservationists in the 1990s, there’s no arguing that somewhere within the park once stood a zoo. Although modest in size, the Kirby Park Zoo, opened to the public in 1932, was a hit with locals who flocked to Kirby Park to see bears, buffalo, exotic birds, deer and monkeys. The zoo sustained damage when the nearby Susquehanna River flooded in 1936; it was subsequently severed from the rest of the park as a means of flood control that would protect Wilkes-Barre from future storms. In 1940, floodwaters once again struck the zoo. It eventually closed in 1946 under pressure from the Luzerene County Humane Society. The zoo’s monkey house – "the last remnant of what once was a rather colorful and highly interesting assortment of animal life which added considerably to the pleasure of thousands who made their trips to the park to see them” – was the final structure to be razed. Its residents were relocated to the now-notorious Nay Aug Park Zoo in Scranton.
While the Kirby Park Zoo disappeared almost without a trace, the structures of Nay Aug Park Zoo, although dilapidated, are still very much still intact and visible. These buildings serve as a reminder of the cruelty that became synonymous with the once-celebrated zoo – opened in 1920, it was regarded as one of America’s premiere zoological gardens – most famous for its monkeys and resident pachyderms including Tillie, an Asian elephant who was BFFs with a donkey named Joshua. Leading up to its long-overdue shuttering in 1988, the beleaguered zoo was plagued with reports of animal escapes (including an alligator) and allegations of poor conditions and abuse.
After sitting dormant for over a decade, the Nay Aug Park Zoo reopened as the Genesis Wildlife Center in 2003. The also-troubled sanctuary closed in 2009. Recently, a nonprofit group proposed transforming the derelict zoo grounds into a neuter clinic for Scranton’s feral cat population.
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