The Story Behind Miami's Mysterious Abandoned Zoo

Written by VIVA Staff

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Photo by Colleen Prieto on Flickr (via Creative Commons)

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It's hard to say what people find some alluring about abandoned places. Maybe it's the silence. Maybe it's the history. Maybe it's the way they give us a sense of what the world would look like without us. Maybe they just make good settings for Instagram photo shoots. Whatever the case, people tend to flock to abandoned places—and there are few more compelling than the deserted Crandon Park Zoo in sunny Miami, Florida.

This abandoned zoo is tucked away in Crandon Park on Key Biscayne, just off the coast of downtown Miami, and can still be explored by adventurous locals and visitors—provided they're willing to run the risk of alligator encounters.

But how did the zoo get there? And why was it abandoned?

Allow us to explain how it all happened.

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It all started in 1948, when a traveling animal show got stranded in Miami. The City of Miami had recently purchased a plot of land on Key Biscayne and, in an effort to help the stranded travelers and drum up some income, purchased a goat, two black bears, and three monkeys. Those creatures took up residence in enclosures on Key Biscayne, kickstarting what we now know as the Crandon Park Zoo.

Over the years, many more animals were added to the zoo, including several lions, chimpanzees, and giraffes. Eventually, it was home to north of 1,200 animals. Unfortunately, conditions were not good. In fact, they were terrible. According to Atlas Obscura, it was the kind of place where you'd find "a polar bear, in South Florida, in a steel cage, with a hot tub-sized pool to keep cool." Even in those days, when animal rights weren't the high-profile issue they are today, people began to take notice and express their disapproval.

Outrage peaked in 1965, when South Florida was ravaged by Hurricane Betsy. The storm killed more than 250 animals at the zoo. Several met a particularly grim end, drowning in the high water caused by the storm. After that tragedy, decision-makers were left with no choice but to move the zoo and its residents to a more suitable location. They finally did so in 1980, opening a zoo that ostensibly provided better conditions for its animals. The original Crandon Park Zoo was then converted into a botanical garden, though it never generated much in the way of interest among locals or visitors, and upkeep left a lot to be desired.

Many of the original zoo's structures still stand today. Those structures and the surrounding tangle of vines and brush have become the home of countless animals, including iguanas, snakes, and an array of native and non-native birds, ranging from peacocks to sandhill cranes.

The result is a wild and enchanting space that is perfect for picnics, bike rides, or a simple bit of exploration.

Before you set out on your adventure, however, let us reiterate one more time: there are reportedly alligators around, so keep your eyes peeled and explore at your own risk.

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