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The wind swings the old cage door open as if to free a reluctant occupant. But there’s nothing there… Or are those paw prints in the sand? Besides, isn’t that the stale breath of some meat-eating beast hanging in the air? And what’s that rustling sound in the bushes? As we explore the following places, you’ll see that abandoned zoos can be more than a little creepy.
Old and now-deserted zoos are full of stories – often those of scandal, neglect, and falling into disrepair or on hard times. If the animals got lucky, they were moved to a bigger, better zoo, but in some cases they died due to improper treatment, starvation or disease.
It’s difficult not to imagine the hardship that led to the demise of a zoo while looking at these strangely haunting images showing empty cages and enclosures – now derelict spaces where large exotic animals no longer prowl or rest. Instead, these incarcerated creatures have been replaced by humans inclined to explore such forsaken places.
7. Belle Isle Children’s Zoo, Detroit, MI, USA
Detroit’s old Children’s Zoo – once a vast and well-kept expanse – has today been almost completely reclaimed by nature. As its name suggests, it was located on Belle Isle, at 982 acres (1.5 sq miles), the largest city park on an island in the United States. Situated in the Detroit River, the island also lies in between two countries, the US and Canada.
Prior to its closure, the Belle Isle Zoo had a long history. It opened as early as 1895 and was renamed the Children’s Zoo in 1947, at which point buildings were added. In 1980, other developments were made to the zoo with the addition of African-themed architectural details such as wooden roofs and the distinctive raised boardwalk now slowly rotting and being overrun by vegetation.
Many of Detroit’s citizens have fond memories of visiting the monkeys, bears, tigers, elephants and hundreds of other animals that were once housed here. Yet, despite the zoo being much loved by locals, in 2002 the later fallen mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick, decided to close it, citing budget constraints. To the disappointment of children and adults alike, and in spite of popular opposition, the temporary closure that was announced soon became permanent.
Today, in its afterlife, the zoo is frequented by few with the exception of urban explorers – and the last remaining members of a diminishing herd of European fallow deer. The deer were introduced at the turn of the 20th century and ran free on the island for generations, but are now hemmed in inside the old zoo. The abandoned remains tell a sad story.
Today, visitors have to cross over into Oakland County if they want to visit Detroit Zoo, officially called Detroit Zoological Park, which is located about two miles north of city limits.
6. Rhodes Zoo, Cape Town, South Africa
Rhodes Zoo in Cape Town was the brainchild of Cecil Rhodes, a 19th-century colonial businessman from Britain who had it built as his own private menagerie – with access offered to a certain public: white middle-class settlers. Rhodes’ idea was to house exotic animals from across the British Empire – as well as those from ‘wild’ Africa – and architecturally the place displays Mediterranean influences as well. It’s a hybrid product of its time.
The abandoned zoo is right next to the University of Cape Town’s campus in the city’s southern suburbs. As such, it’s a popular hangout for students who want to get away for a while (and perhaps indulge in more or less illicit activities!).
When Rhodes Zoo closed in the 1980s, people even started living in the animal enclosures because the city was going through a housing crisis. Instead of allowing people to take temporary shelter in these spaces, the authorities bricked them up to keep the squatters out. The low-hanging clouds in this image might almost be seen to bear witnesses to those times.
This photograph shows the rungs leading down into the lion’s den, which, interestingly, was constructed with a moat around it, so that visitors could see the animals at eye level without having to look through fencing or bars – yet while remaining safe from the beasts.
5. Charleroi Zoo, Belgium
Before we talk about Charleroi’s zoo, we should first mention the Belgian city itself, as it really is special – especially ugly, that is. And that’s not us saying it. It was officially voted "the ugliest city in the world" in 2009 – albeit by citizens of neighboring Holland. Once at the core of Belgium’s coal and industrial belt, Charleroi never recovered after multiple recessions, leaving a wasteland of slagheaps and vacant factories that would be too costly to tear down.
One of Charleroi’s old industrial buildings – and a former mine (pictured here) – was even converted into a zoo, but that idea was evidently abandoned too. Who knows what happened to the animals. One hopes they were found a better home. As photographer and urban explorer Bram Jansma observed when he was there, you can still see the cages and some of the objects that were part of the zoo.
4. Kirby Park Zoo, Wilkes Barre, PA, USA
In 1932, the Wilkes-Barre Municipal Zoo opened as “a park for the people,” the design of which had been commissioned a decade previous. Not big by any stretch, the park nevertheless showcased monkeys, bears, buffalo, deer, wild birds and other small animals, as well as a wading pool and walking trails – all of which were doubtless enjoyed by the public.
Yet disaster struck as early as 1936 when the park was flooded, and the zoo got placed in a “natural zone” – on one side of the dike created to manage the situation, and which to this day divides Kirby Park. Cut off from the city side of the park, the small zoo fell into disrepair, and by 1946 – following animals dying in captivity and reports of infestation by vermin – little remained but the monkey house.
Today, the ruins of buildings that once belonged to the zoo are still standing – as is the river observation deck and caretaker’s cottage – but as a place it’s clearly a shadow of its former self.
3. Franklin Park, Boston, MA, USA
Franklin Park Zoo in Boston opened its doors in 1912 and did extremely well at first. Admittance was free, and it was a popular local attraction. Approximately 2 million visitors are thought to have visited the zoo in 1920 alone.
However, the Great Depression struck in 1929, followed by the Second World War, and like the fortunes of so many, the fate of the zoo animals took a negative turn as well.
The zoo fell into disrepair over the years, and in 1958, the Bears Den – deemed too expensive to maintain and closed several years earlier – was cut off and left to slip further into decline. Today, the iron cages remain slightly eerie reminders of difficult times for man and animal alike.
The funding and redevelopment of Franklin Park Zoo didn’t start until the 1970s. Although the zoo never closed for good, the conditions in which the animals were reported to have been living were not good to say the least.
Even today, though it’s quite picturesque from the outside, the inside of the old bear cage is less than inviting. The white sheet in this photo almost looks like a ghost crawling up the wall. Photographer Paul says: “I took this shot by inserting my camera through the barred window and crossing my fingers. I couldn't see what was inside. This is directly behind the stone relief.” Creepy, isn't it?
2. Max Allen’s Zoological Gardens, Lake of the Ozarks, MO, USA
As a roadside attraction, Max Allen’s Zoological Gardens in Missouri took full advantage of the number of travelers cruising down Highway 54 on their way to Lake of the Ozarks. The zoo opened under the name Ozark Reptile Gardens in 1951, and was home to hundreds of different kinds of snakes and lizards.
Turtles, seals, exotic birds and monkeys were soon added, and the reptile house was turned into a proper zoo. The stone wall pictured here is almost overgrown by vegetation. It exudes a certain decrepit charm but also serves as a reminder that nature wins in the end.
According to photographer Todd Franklin, nature began to reclaim the site of Max Allen’s Zoological Gardens in the mid-'70s, when the zoo moved to a different location. Apparently, the relocated zoo then closed sometime in the ‘90s and is now a cowboy and western-wear shop.
The memories of Brent, who worked at Max Allen’s when he was a teenager, are priceless: “I worked at Max Allen's for 5 summers, cleaning cages and giving tours,” he comment. “Mrs. Nickerson agreed to hire me for 50 cents an hour when I was 15 years old. George, the Galapagos turtle, was blind and loved heads of lettuce. Max Allen's was also home to a baby elephant, named Jody. Those little monkeys were Squirrel Monkeys and were sold for $29.95. They were rough to catch and were not the least bit friendly! I'll never forget those days at Max Allen's.”
Griffith Park Zoo, Los Angeles, CA, USA
Griffith Park is a large urban park in Los Angeles’s Los Feliz area; at 4,310 acres (6.7 square miles), it is one of the largest in North America. The park’s roots date back to the 19th century, and Griffith Park Zoo itself opened in 1912, with only 15 animals to begin with.
After growing in size, by 1956 Griffith Park Zoo was seen to have reached its capacity and needed to move, and by 1966, the new site of what would become Los Angeles Zoo had been readied and the relocation of the animals began. Meanwhile the old zoo was left to rack and ruin
Nowadays, Griffith Park Zoo is a favorite with urban explorers and others, as the graffiti suggests. It has also seen its fair share of shoots as a location for movies – both with and without animals. What makes Griffith Park Zoo so thrilling is that, with many of the original structures intact, it’s easy to imagine how the animals must have once lived – almost as if their ghosts have lingered.
If there’s a sadness to the deserted zoo now, it’s well-founded. Photographer Kurt Fischer did some digging and found some tit-bits that offer an insight into the tragic past the old place. It seems that insufficient financial backing and maintenance ensured the zoo’s lifetime was blighted by animal escapes and negative publicity. It’s also said that during World War One “many of the animals died as a result of food rationing and improper care and housing.” Then, after “years of neglect and scandal,” a bond of $6.6 million or more was passed to move the zoo to its current location.
With such an eventful past, no wonder the sense of unease seems to hang over the empty and dilapidated cages and animal enclosures of Griffith Park Zoo.
It’s hard to tear oneself away from the memories and eerily empty pictures that are nevertheless so full of stories. Next time we visit a zoo, we’ll appreciate the life it holds – however confined.