Abandoned Bell Isle zoo brought to life

By Jack Peltz

Photo by Jack Peltz

Vibrant graffiti draws attention to the main dome in the center of the zoo on September 26. The bright paint makes up psychedelic figures such as mushrooms and tongues. The graffiti was layered on top of one another because artists continue to return to the zoo to work on their intricate designs.

Photo by Jack Peltz

The sun is shining perfectly over two abandoned maintenance buildings near the front of the zoo on September 26 and the purple lense flare in the center helps sanctify the beauty of this photo.


The paintings and colors have all been stripped away, and the walls are now lined with layers upon layers of graffiti, unseen by the public eye. Large pine trees have crushed the boardwalks.


This describes what was the once thriving Belle Isle Zoo. The park opened in 1895, and remained open as a popular tourist attraction until the 1980’s when it was completely renovated, becoming the Belle Isle Children’s Zoo. The newly redone zoo continued to function until 2002 when the mayor of Detroit, Kwane Kilpatrick decided to abolish it in an attempt to save some money for the city. The original zoo had 150 animals including a deer run and a bear enclosure.


1979 Groves graduate, Kat Klien, was a frequent visitor of the Belle Isle Zoo before it closed. Klien’s favorite part of visiting Bell Isle was its views. While some enjoyed the animal enclosures, Klein worried that the animals were mistreated.


I am an animal empathizer so my only memory is of the Mexican Wolf, pacing restlessly back and forth in its small area. This disturbed me deeply. I called the Detroit Zoo who was responsible for the Belle Isle Zoo, and had a very compassionate conversation with them about the limited space allowed for the wolf and why it was alone. They informed me that in the wild this wolf has a relatively small territorial range and that they were looking for a suitable mate so that the wolf wouldn't be alone. I appreciated their genuine awareness and concern,” Klien said.


While Klien appreciated the Detroit Zoo's response, Klein still felt uneasy about the quality of life for the animals displayed at the zoo and is glad those animals were moved the Detroit Zoo in Royal Oak.


“I have a hard time seeing animals in captivity, that's just me, but I appreciate that zoos allow the public to gaze upon these amazing creatures. I am a huge fan of the Detroit Zoo because of their humane compassion for animals and their sustainability initiatives, and the education they provide,” Klien said.


Photo by Jack Peltz

The doors to these cramped metal cages, previously to hold animals, remain open. 1979 Groves graduate, Kat Klien, was a frequent visitor of the Belle Isle Zoo before it closed. During the zoo’s prime, Kein felt uneasy about the quality of life for the animals displayed at the zoo. “I have a hard time seeing animals in captivity. That's just me. I am an animal empathizer. My only memory is of the Mexican Wolf, pacing restlessly back and forth in its small area. This disturbed me deeply,” Klien said.


What’s left of the original Belle Isle Zoo now sits abandoned and in ruins at the center of the island. The paintings and colors have all been stripped away, and detritus, rotting food, crumpled paper, mold cover the floors of the enclosures as the wood walls sit still, slowly decaying away as the years go by. Other buildings, including the main domes in the center of the zoo, which are large, circular buildings, remain largely intact. Vacant cages and enclosures harken the sounds of long gone animals in the dark basements below the buildings. Remnants of the zoo café sits abandoned at the edge of the park, and the large, open areas that once held animals, adored people of all ages, are now empty slabs of overgrown concrete, which nature has decided to take back.


As someone who loves photography, I couldn’t imagine a more hauntingly beautiful piece of history to capture.

Photo by Jack Peltz

Vines can be seen growing up the sides of most of the abandoned buildings as seen here at the main dome on September 26. This shows how easily nature can take back something after it has been left behind.


Photo by Jack Peltz

This photo on the left shows the bridge between domes as well as the top two floors of the main dome. Vivid graffiti lines the walls of both floors on September 26 and part of a net of ropes and hoses drop like vines on the left of the bridge.

Photo by Jack Peltz

This cabinet in the right photo is located in the main office near the front of the ticket office at the front of the zoo. The drawers were empty on September 26 and most of the papers blanketed the floor with mold and mildew.

Photo by Jack Peltz

The building which previously housed smaller animals remains abandoned on September 26. All the windows are shattered and there are many small cages inside. Vines slither up the outside walls, a thrilling but unsettling sight.



Photo by Jack Peltz

This fenced-in, graffiti filled tunnel has no doors or openings. On September 26, the only way I got into this tunnel was through a hole in the fence. I’m not sure what this area was meant for as there is nothing about it in the zoo archives.


Photo by Jack Peltz

A large open room sits vacant at the top floor of the main dome on September 26. All the windows and doors are missing and the sides and floor are lined with graffiti. The staircase to the other floors is located in this room and there is a broken dumbwaiter in the back.



Photo by Jack Peltz

This winding staircase was in the main dome building and was 3 stories tall. Graffiti lined the walls of the stairs from the top floor to the basement on September 26. Six years ago, according to MLive, a body was discovered at the bottom of these stairs. An urban explorer who was taking pictures of the zoo ventured down into the basement of the main building, over three flights of stairs down. He ended up discovering the mummified body of an unidentified homeless man that was presumed to have been sitting down there for months.


Photo by Jack Peltz

An abandoned graffiti covered shed is set perfectly in the middle of a field. This is by far my favorite picture I took on September 26. The dark, decrepit building contrasts perfectly with the bright, colorful vegetation.


The abandoned Belle Isle Children’s Zoo is quite possibly the most amazing place I have ever visited. I felt an eerie thrill to stand where visitors used to admire animals that once populated this desolate landscape. Kids could have gazed out in wonder at a majestic lion right where I stood.


While this abandoned zoo reveals the beauty of nature and folk art transforming a once formal structure, this place can also be very dangerous.


Photos by Jack Peltz

Photo 1: Files upon files litter the floor of the main office on September 26. Despite the papers being faded from time, I was able to understand a few, such as the map of Twelve Oaks, which appeared to be from the 70’s, and can be seen on the right side of the floor.

Photo 2: This photo taken on September 26 shows the torn up ceiling in the ticket office at the entrance to the park. Ticket booths were vacant, walls were shattered, and graffiti was sparse in this room because of how hard it was to access.

Photo 3: The café near the entrance of the zoo remains abandoned on September 26. The inside is barren, but colorful images and graffiti add life to the room. The writing on the back wall reads “make love not war”.


This was not my first time at the zoo. I went in June, so I knew my way around. On the first trip to the zoo I struggled to find my way through the thick overgrowth and rotten wood. Some sections of the boardwalk have rotted away, and the wood is decrepit and falling apart. In a few of the smaller buildings in the zoo, roofs have begun to cave in upon the buildings. In 2014, an urban explorer who was taking pictures of the zoo ventured down into the basement of the main building, over three flights of stairs down. He ended up discovering the mummified body of an unidentified homeless man that was presumed to have been sitting down there for months.


I went down into this same basement, and thankfully I did not find any dead bodies. The zoo is a life changing place to visit as it gives a new perspective on nature and the way it interacts with man’s creations. If you do choose to explore this magnificent place, be careful, as you never know what you might discover.

Photo by Jack Peltz

The sun shines over the two main domes on September 26, casts a bright glow over the entire landscape. The tops of the domes rise high above the open enclosure.


Photo by Jack Peltz

This colorful photo is of what I believe to be the only remnants of any artwork from the original zoo on September 26. A graffitied over lion can be seen on the wall as well as some bright green and trees. While it is faded, this mural is one of my favorite parts of the zoo, as it shows that there was indeed something here before.

Photo by Jack Peltz

Vines encompass the gated entrance to the historic zoo on September 26. The vines act as a symbol of closure as they wrap around the metal bars sealing any entry.

Featured Posts
Recent Posts