Belle Isle Zoo

The Belle Isle Zoo is an abandoned zoo in Detroit, Michigan, once a popular attraction showcasing a variety of animals before its closure in 2002 due to budgetary constraints and declining attendance.

The Belle Isle Zoo is an abandoned zoo in Detroit, Michigan, once a popular attraction showcasing a variety of animals before its closure in 2002 due to budgetary constraints and declining attendance.


The first Detroit Zoo, founded in 1883, found its home on Michigan Avenue. 8 Luther Beecher, a prominent figure in Detroit, played a pivotal role in acquiring animals from a bankrupt traveling circus. However, due to financial constraints, the Detroit Zoological Garden shuttered after just one year, leading to the conversion of the premises into a horse market. 9 Some of the animals were subsequently relocated to exhibits on Belle Isle. 8 9

At the same time, Detroit enlisted the services of Frederick Law Olmsted, a renowned urban park designer, to conceive a park on Belle Isle, situated in the Detroit River. However, not all of Olmsted’s proposed design features materialized.

In 1895, the Belle Isle Zoo commenced operations, showcasing a modest collection of deer and a bear. 3 By 1905, it had expanded to encompass 15 acres, accommodating a wider array of animals, including 30 deer, four prairie dogs, four owls, five eagles, and three wild turkeys. 8

In 1941, the management of the Belle Isle Zoo was transferred to the Detroit Zoological Park Commission. 2 3 Subsequently, in 1947, the Belle Isle Children’s Zoo was inaugurated, featuring exhibits inspired by nursery rhymes. However, due to exorbitant upkeep expenses, it was closed in 1956. 3

In 1976, the city of Detroit sold $1.5 million in bonds to rebuild Belle Isle Zoo, 11 with renovation efforts commencing in 1978. 4 It cumulated in the rededication of the zoo on May 30, 1980, followed by its public opening the subsequent day. 4 The revamped facility, spanning 25 acres and costing $4.5 million, was erected on the former grounds of the Belle Isle Children’s Zoo. 4 6 It boasted an elaborate network of elevated walkways meandering amidst trees and across ponds, traversing naturalized exhibits and linking to rustic buildings reminiscent of African huts. 4 This marked a notable departure from the previous exhibits characterized by metal cages and concrete flooring.

The rejuvenated facility also introduced several species previously unseen at the venue, including the scimitar-horned oryx, blesbok antelope, wallaroo, guanaco, crowned cranes, and barasingha deer. 4 Altogether, it featured 150 animals. 6

But both the Belle Isle Zoo and its larger sibling, the Detroit Zoo, faced chronic underfunding. 11 The American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums revoked their funding in 1983.

Since its peak attendance of 240,000 visitors in 1980, the Belle Isle Zoo experienced a steady decline in foot traffic. 5 In 2001, only 75,000 individuals had visited the facility, which was starkly contrasting the one million annual visitors at the main Detroit Zoo in Royal Oak. Similarly, school visits to the Belle Isle Zoo plummeted to 20,000, whereas the Detroit Zoo welcomed 200,000 students.

In April 2002, the city temporarily closed the Belle Isle Zoo while exploring alternative options. 5 Animals were relocated from Belle Isle to the Detroit Zoo and other accredited facilities during this period. This closure resulted in cost savings for the city, amounting to approximately $670,000 in the first year and potentially up to $1.3 million annually in subsequent years 5 during a period when the city faced a projected $75 million deficit. 7

The City Council reinstated the zoo’s $600,000 budget and allocated an additional $100,000 for maintenance. 9 However, Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick vetoed this decision. Despite the council’s attempt to override the veto, they could not compel the mayor to allocate the funds. Consequently, the Belle Isle Zoo remained closed to the public and eventually fell into disuse.

A public campaign headed by Friends of Belle Isle, People Reinvestment In Detroit’s Enterprises, and other pro-Belle Isle Zoo groups resulted in the passage of a local bond issue that November to fund the reopening of Belle Isle Zoo. 10 12 In March 2004, the Detroit Zoological Institute outlined plans for a new Belle Isle Nature Zoo on 20 acres on Belle Isle which opened in 2005. 13 While it features a reduced animal population compared to its predecessor, 3 it includes mammals indigenous to Michigan on display. 13




  1. Hickman, Matt. “Michigan seeks public input for revitalization of Detroit’s long-abandoned Belle Isle Zoo.” The Architect’s Newspaper, 14 Jun. 2022.
  2. “Chaos! At the Belle Isle Zoo, 1940.” The Night Train, 15 June 2010.
  3. History of Belle Isle.” Friends of Belle Isle.
  4. Smith, Sally. “Camels and friends are at exotic new zoo.” Detroit Free Press, 30 May 1980, pp. 3A-19A.
  5. Elrick, M.L. “Isle zoo may close for good.” Detroit Free Press, 4 May 2002, pp. 3A-8A.
  6. Kohn, Martin F. “Bonus babies.” Detroit Free Press, 3 Apr. 1982, p. 3A.
  7. “Zoo may get cash to survive.” Detroit Free Press, 17 May 2002, p. 3B.
  8. Beltaire, Mark. “New zoo is special thrill for head of Park board.” Detroit Free Press, 30 Jun. 1980, p. 13D.
  9. “Kilpatrick refuses to open Belle Isle Zoo.” Lansing State Journal, 27 Jun. 2002, p. 2B.
  10. Belle Isle Nature Zoo / Safariland.”
  11. Chargot, Patricia. “Zoos given care, feeding in other cities.” Detroit Free Press, 20 Nov. 1983, pp. 1A-8A.
  12. Lords, Erik. “Council wants an answer on zoo.” Detroit Free Press, 21 Nov. 2002, p. 5B.
  13. Shepardson, David. “Belle Isle to house Nature Zoo, lodge.” Detroit Free Press, 28 Mar. 2004, p. B1.

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