Belle Isle Nature Zoo

Near the intersection of Central Way and Lakeside Drive on
Belle Isle in the Detroit River

Thanks to the generosity of Horace Rackham and other prosperous Detroit individuals, land in Royal Oak and Huntington Woods was secured for a Detroit Zoo in the mid-1920s.  In 1928, the city of Detroit opened one of the nation’s first modern zoos, an institution that remains one of the most attractive and interesting zoological parks in the nation. 

That, however, was not the first zoo in the city.  Detroit operated a small zoo on Belle Isle beginning in 1895.  I have not seen pictures of this zoo while it was in operation, although I have read that a few large cats were housed there.  In 1947, the Detroit Zoo took over the operation on Belle Isle, built several modest buildings and renamed it the Children’s Zoo.   

In the early 1970s, Detroit financial travails led to the closing of the Children’s Zoo.  After Coleman Young became mayor, he supported the reopening of the zoo on Belle Isle.  A few additional buildings were constructed and a small safari-themed zoo with some African or thatched style architecture opened.  It remained open for only 21 or 22 years. Early in his administration, Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick faced financial challenges.  In 2002, he decided to close what remained of the small Belle Isle Children’s zoo over the protests of Common Council.  Pictures of the abandoned Belle Isle zoo are shown at the web address listed below.

By 2006, the financial status of the Detroit Zoo had changed such that it was not solely dependent upon municipal monies.  Rather it has become a non-profit organization depending upon private and public sources of revenue.  In that year, the zoo assumed operational and financial supervision of a new Belle Isle Nature Zoo.  This is located in a building that had, some years earlier, been used for nature displays.  At least two million dollars were spent to renovate the building and create new exhibits such as one showing how beehives operate and another focused upon Michigan’s turtles.  Support for the renovation came from City of Detroit bonds, the Community Foundation of Southeast Michigan, LaSalle Bank and the Huron-Clinton Metropark system.  A major feature of the Nature Zoo is a one-acre enclosure that is home to about 25 deer.  Until, 2004 these deer were allowed to roam Belle Isle, but they were penned after they began to destroy the flora of the island.

Although many components of Belle Isle are being renovated, I have heard of no plans to remodel and recreate the zoo that opened its doors for the first time 114 years ago.

Date established: 2007
Architect for buildings:  Unknown to me
Use in 2009:  Nature center on Belle Isle with a range for deer
Website for Belle Isle Nature Zoo:
Website with pictures of the abandoned Belle Isle Zoo:
City of Detroit Designated Historic District: Not listed
State of Michigan Registry of Historic Places.  Belle Isle is  State of Michigan
Historic District #P25,046, listed September 10, 1979
National Register of Historic Sites: Belle Isle is National Historic District #80004776 listed in 1980.
Photograph:  Ren Farley: October, 2009
Description prepared: November, 2009

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